Friday 20 September 2019

Lyra McKee archive: 'Since the Good Friday Agreement, more people have died by taking their own lives than were killed in the Troubles'

Journalist Lyra McKee died after being shot on Thursday (Family handout/PA)
Journalist Lyra McKee died after being shot on Thursday (Family handout/PA)

Lyra McKee

For me, the year 1998 is bookended by two events. The first one will stand out in the minds only of those who lived through it or were directly impacted. In the 20 years that have passed since, I haven't heard it mentioned again.

Technically, it happened in 1997 - in the last three hours of the year. The local New Year's Eve revellers had gathered in a bar called the Clifton Tavern. It sat on the corner of Clifton Crescent and the lower Cliftonville Road itself. It was a newish addition to the street, sitting beside the local Chinese takeway - which was run by a fierce but pleasant Chinese lady who was more than a match for the midnight drunks, and her good-natured husband - the local pharmacy, and the corner shop.

I can't remember if the Chinese was open that night. I can't remember hearing gunshots either. It must have all been over in a matter of seconds: some time around 9.07pm, said a Belfast Telegraph report. Loyalist gunmen had stormed the bar and sprayed it with bullets. In hindsight, it was an ominous scene: a sea of sirens lighting up a dark blue sky, with the light from the street lamps adding an eerie glow to it all. The clock hadn't yet struck 12am on a new year and here were the police, cordoning off what we would later hear was officially a murder scene after it was confirmed one man had passed away from his injuries. According to Lost Lives, he died minutes before midnight. He was an innocent civilian, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The second event was the Omagh bomb. The collective gasp of revulsion from voters - both Protestant and Catholic - confirmed to those who'd voted 'Yes' in the referendum that they'd done the right thing. Maybe the adults had become desensitised to violence - or maybe they'd been lured into a false sense of security by the peace deal - but there was something about the images from the newspapers' coverage and the UTV bulletins that day that were different.

We'd seen atrocities a thousand times, but the outrage over Omagh was palpable, and it extended from homes in Ardoyne to the Shankill. The majority had voted for the Good Friday Agreement because they wanted the senseless violence to end. Omagh, as I remember it, served only to harden their will.

Because that was why we wanted peace, no? To stop mothers being robbed of sons, daughters, husbands? To stop the violence from visiting our doorsteps, if it hadn't already? Twenty years on, the peace process has succeeded - in some ways.

People are no longer dying at the hands of paramilitaries, but they're still dying, too young and too soon. The culprit now is suicide.

According to a report in The Guardian in February, around 4,500 people have died by suicide since the Good Friday Agreement. It's the most tragic of ironies that 20 years of peace could rob us of more lives than 30 years of war did.

Researchers such as Professor Siobhan O'Neill, a world-renowned expert on conflict and suicide who works at Ulster University, have established that there is a link between these deaths and the Troubles. "We have found that people who witness violence, or who have been involved in violence are more likely to act on suicidal thoughts," she says. "They are more likely to die on the first suicide attempt because they choose more violent methods."

Yet the impact of the Troubles in this respect is not limited to first-generation survivors, she cautions.

Trauma can be passed down; the so-called ceasefire babies, who did not witness the violence of the 1970s or '80s and have lived in a time of relative peace, are now suffering from the legacy of a conflict most of them know little to nothing of. Theirs was a generation promised peace, prosperity and a life free from the terrors faced by their parents and grandparents. I can't help but feel that we've failed them.

In the BBC report on the Clifton Tavern shooting, there's an ominous line: "About a sixth of all the 3,200 victims of the conflict since 1969 have died in north Belfast." Now, in peacetime, the area is suffering all over again, losing its young people to suicide in droves.

It's horrific enough to lose one child, but some mothers in this corner of the city have lost two or three children. Tragedies of this proportion should have been left behind with the Troubles but, 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, we're still carrying the coffins of the young to their graves.

Meanwhile, with Stormont not in session, the strategy for preventing these deaths - called Protect Life 2 - is currently languishing in some civil servant's desk drawer. Apparently, it can't be signed off until we have a government.

Yet the evidence, says O'Neill, shows that around 70% of people who die by suicide had not approached any mental health services. What would our suicide figures drop to if we could remove the stigma of saying "I don't feel okay", so that people can make an appointment with their GP about their mental health as casually as they would if they had the flu?

What if we accepted that as a post-conflict society, we are more vulnerable to mental distress than our peers on the mainland, and treated mental ill health as a normal affliction that comes with having seen and survived conflict or having been born within a generation of it?

News of another death reaches me nearly every week. Again and again, I see the same theatre play out. Statements of condolence from politicians have become as meaningless as the "thoughts and prayers" offered after every mass shooting in America. Northern Ireland is a country where activity tends to be confused with progress, but make no mistake: until the suicide rate is reduced as close to zero as we can get it, the peace process has failed the very ceasefire generation it was meant to save from slaughter.

Normally, these - the final paragraphs of any piece I write - are where I deliver some pithy one-liner (or try to) sum up my argument. Yet I didn't write this article to advance an opinion or start a debate. Instead, I want to make an appeal to you, reader. I've talked here about people who are at risk of suicide - who are just not sure if they can go on. Maybe that person is you. If it is, please keep reading - I just want two minutes of your time.

In the last five months, I've lost two good friends to suicide. To protect their families' privacy, I'll call them James and Roisin.

In the months since their deaths, I have felt like grief is eating me from the inside out. I am wracked with guilt. I've spent so much time talking about mental health and encouraging others to talk about theirs yet I didn't realise just how much my own friends were suffering. Suicide is a thief. It will rob you of the opportunity to see the day when things start to get better, before slowly torturing the loved ones you've left behind. People tell me not to blame myself for my friends' deaths but I do. Not a week goes by when I don't think of all the missed chances, times when I could have talked them out of it, if only I'd realised what thoughts were in their heads.

If I could turn back time, I would go to the small flat where James lived. I'd beg him not to leave us. I'd tell him how much we love him and that I know he's suffering but we'll fix it and we'll get him help and we'll make things better. Then I'd go to Roisin's house and do the same. I'd beg them both to keep living because I've seen the devastation their deaths have caused.

But I can't turn back time. I can't bring them back. I can only use this opportunity to beg you to reconsider what you're thinking about doing. If you are feeling the same way they did, please, ask for help. Talk to someone. There are amazing volunteers at Samaritans ready to take your call. Talk to your family, friends, neighbours, GP - someone out there will listen. If you feel you have no-one, find me on Twitter and ask me to follow you for a private message - I will give you contact details for professionals who can help.

There's a saying within the LGBT community: "It gets better." It's what we tell LGBT youths and others who are currently journeying through Hell. Keep going, we say, because one day you'll wake up and be glad that you lived. That piece of advice applies to all of us who are struggling. So please, I beg you - live. It really does get better and you deserve the chance to enjoy it when it does.

  • If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article please contact Samaritans helpline 116 123 or Aware helpline 1800 80 48 48 or Pieta House on 1800 247 247.

Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News