Sunday 15 September 2019

Edward McCann: 'Gunshots send echoes through the void of a divided community'

The murder of Lyra McKee has united politicians, but more conciliation is needed in North's fractured society, writes Edward McCann

Floral tributes are left. Photos: PA
Floral tributes are left. Photos: PA
Lyra behind the police Land Rover moments before she was gunned down

Edward McCann

They were shots that echoed around the country - plunging Northern Ireland once more into tortured self-analysis after tragically and pointlessly taking the life of a talented young journalist.

Politicians from across the spectrum, north and south, united to condemn the dissident republicans responsible for Lyra McKee's murder during rioting in Derry.

It was heartening to see DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald attend a peace vigil in Creggan. Foster was accompanied by Gregory Campbell, the party's hardline MP for Londonderry East. It was also heartening to hear Foster say: "I want to say your pain is my pain. It doesn't matter whether you are Catholic or a Protestant, whether you identify as Irish or British."

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This kind of conciliatory and generous language is something that has been sorely lacking in Northern politics since the power-sharing Executive collapsed in acrimony more than two years ago.

There have been growing signs ever since that dissident republican groups have been feeding off the resultant political vacuum.

In January this year, the New IRA exploded a car bomb outside a Derry courthouse. CCTV footage had caught a group of young people walk past the car minutes earlier. Carnage had been avoided - but only through happenstance.

Former senior policeman Alan McQuillan perceptively warned at the time to expect more of the same around major historic anniversaries. That bombing had occurred just ahead of the 100th anniversary of the meeting of the first Dail Eireann. Lyra's murder happened as police attempted to disrupt dissident activity ahead of Easter Rising commemorations.

The lingering toxicity of paramilitarism continues to hold sway in small areas of Northern Ireland, both loyalist and republican. In January, Ian Ogle, a 45-year-old community worker, was stabbed to death on the street just yards from his home in east Belfast by people connected to the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Just like gangland crime in Dublin, residual paramilitarism has very little impact on most people who would have no reason to visit the deprived areas where it has its strongholds.

Although the Good Friday Agreement has had a transformative effect on the quality of life and infrastructure of Belfast in particular, the benefits have seemingly not trickled down to some areas.

Lyra herself had written about this, particularly the high rate of suicide among young people growing up in the aftermath of the Troubles. People in these areas still live in segregated housing estates and attend segregated schools. Peace walls still divide many working-class districts of Belfast.

The murder of Lyra has probably resonated more because she was a journalist and also seemed to represent an Alternative Ulster. She was also an unintended target - though the gunman clearly had little regard for where he was shooting.

She was gay and had made a short film about the difficulties she had faced coming out in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage is still not legal.

She also didn't want to be pigeon-holed as Protestant or Catholic. And, of course, she died following her inquisitive instincts as a journalist.

Earlier last week, I went to a talk at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast where author Anne Enright interviewed fellow Booker Prize winner Anna Burns, who was returning to her home city officially for the first time since winning the accolade last autumn.

Burns shared the same publisher as Lyra and spoke movingly about her at a rally in Belfast on Friday, recalling how her "wee heart was always open".

Burns's book, Milkman, is easily, in my view, the best novel to come out of Northern Ireland. It cleverly dissects through the eyes of its 18-year-old protagonist ''Middle Sister'' the toxic and myopic nature of life growing up in a society twisted by divided loyalties and sectarian violence. She is a girl who doesn't conform in a closed community and has the odd habit of reading while walking. This leads the character to ask a friend questioning her about her habit: "Are you saying it's OK for him to go around with Semtex but not okay for me to read Jane Eyre in public?"

Burns read extracts from the book at the Lyric, including this line, in her surprisingly mellifluous Belfast accent (she left the city in 1985 and moved to England).

The extract got a great laugh. It is a funny line but also hints at a twisted psychology where black can be white and white black.

Sitting in the audience in this upmarket venue, it was easy to think that this was all in the past - something particular to Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s.

The reality, however, is that dissident republicans are just one sometimes deadly aspect of what is still a fractured society. They are feeding on the void that has seen Northern Ireland rudderless at a time when it is facing the uncertainty of Brexit.

The same politicians who stood united to condemn the murder of Lyra McKee are also the same politicians who are hopelessly divided. Divided to such an extent that they can't agree on any aspect of Brexit, the Irish Language Act, prosecutions in relation to killings during the Troubles... and so on and on.

Maybe that will change now - but I wouldn't hold my breath.

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