Sunday 25 August 2019

Philip McGarry: 'Lyra's death shows if we repeat mistakes of the past we will never deal with the present'

In memory: A mourner listens to the service outside St Anne's Cathedral during the funeral of Lyra McKee in Belfast. Photo: Gerry Mooney
In memory: A mourner listens to the service outside St Anne's Cathedral during the funeral of Lyra McKee in Belfast. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Philip McGarry

Lyra McKee, although only 29, had established a reputation as an extremely sophisticated journalist and writer. In 2016, she wrote an article for the US magazine 'The Atlantic', addressing our disturbingly high suicide rate, which is much greater than during the Troubles. This chimed with work I carried out 30 years ago, showing that the worst years for violence had the lowest suicide rates, and that suicide increased with gradual 'normalisation'. Lyra looked at the extensive research from Israel on Holocaust survivors, and reported how their children (who themselves have an elevated suicide rate) often found their parents 'inaccessible and distant', unwilling to speak of the past, but clearly affected by it. Lyra wrote eloquently of the emerging concept of 'inter-generational transmission of trauma'.

The lesson to be drawn is that burying bad memories is counter productive. Lyra's professional curiosity led her to explore in her work a past Northern Ireland that too many want to forget, but which, for the health of our society, we must not and cannot ignore. Otherwise, she will not be the last victim.

Most people will be appalled that even before Lyra had been buried, 150 associates of the New IRA paraded last Saturday through the centre of Dublin in combat uniform and dark glasses. Sadly, only one citizen was seen to protest.

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This perfectly shows the fatal ambivalence we in Ireland have about the sanctity of human life that continues to poison our society. Can you imagine 48 hours after the Christchurch mosque shootings, 150 white racists in combat fatigues parading through Auckland, or 48 hours after the Manchester arena bombing, Islamists dressed in black parading through London? No, of course not; it is unimaginable, not because governments would ban it, but because the population would not accept it. The world, which has looked on appalled at Lyra McKee's murder and listened to all the fine words of condemnation, must firstly be bemused by and then disgusted at such a brazen endorsement of violence. It will rightly ask why an affluent democratic society is so far out of touch with the norms of the rest of Western Europe.

This brings home the absolute imperative to move beyond the traditional rhetoric after killings, and instead do something useful. Some commentators have referred to the New IRA as 'deluded' and 'crazy', that it is a 'monster' and even 'the Antichrist', engaging in 'senseless' activities. These terms are all misleading. In fact, the New IRA members are not mentally ill, nor psychopaths, and their aim to kill police officers, far from being senseless, is exactly what they had hoped for. These individuals are doing what the IRA has always done, which is using physical force to pursue a political agenda.

My late father was a surgeon for 40 years at the Mater Hospital in Belfast. He once wryly told the medical students: "You know, a Protestant spleen with a bullet in it looks just the same as a Catholic spleen with a bullet in it." He was (equally) disgusted by the violence of the IRA/INLA and the UVF/UDA. Two of his consultant colleagues had sons murdered by the UVF, and another a brother murdered by the IRA. Sadly he died while the violence continued. However, if alive today he would recognise the nauseating statement of Saoradh justifying the murder of Lyra McKee as being exactly the same as those issued by republicans and loyalists justifying killings throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He might even recall that in April 1981 another 29-year-old woman (Joanne Mathers) was murdered in Derry by republicans. No difference - except for 38 years.

The New IRA will doubtless note the cognitive dissonance of those who criticise it for doing what they had unashamedly done themselves.

If we are serious as a community about genuinely ensuring Lyra's killing is the last, then we must move beyond generalities. What could genuinely help is actually quite simple.

We must demand of every community leader, political, religious and others, that the cause of Ireland and the cause of Ulster/the Union does not justify the taking of a single human life. They must also state that just as the killings on Bloody Sunday (and almost certainly some other security force killings) were unjustified and unjustifiable, every killing by the IRA/UVF/INLA/UDA, right from the start in Malvern Street in 1966, was unjustified and unjustifiable.

It would also help if they were to desist from repeating (those who do) the dangerous formulation of 'two communities', which artificially divides us further; after all, which so-called 'community' was Lyra part of?

Lyra McKee reminded us that we can only deal with the present by making sense, in an honest way, of the past. Let us do this, in her memory, and also for the good of our and future generations.

Dr Philip McGarry is a consultant psychiatrist working in Belfast

Irish Independent

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