Wednesday 21 August 2019

Simon Coveney: 'In Lyra's name, now is the right time to do the right thing in Northern Ireland'

Murdered by cowards: Laura McKee's death was senseless and heart-breaking. Photo: Jess Lowe Photography/Handout via REUTERS
Murdered by cowards: Laura McKee's death was senseless and heart-breaking. Photo: Jess Lowe Photography/Handout via REUTERS

Simon Coveney

There is never a perfect time to do the right thing in Northern Ireland.

If you open a calendar on any given week you will find a reason for politicians to hold off engaging with each other. Marching season, conference season, elections, pressure in Westminster, negotiations in Brussels and issues within individual parties are just a few examples.

Little more than a week ago the usual script had been written, and was widely accepted, for the weeks ahead.

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Politicians in Westminster, Brussels, Dublin and Belfast were taking an Easter break in the assumption there could be no engagement while local and European election campaigns were being fought in Northern Ireland in May. The script said the parties were on the doorsteps and would inevitably maintain partisan politics until the elections had past.

Just after 11pm on Thursday, April 18 that script was torn up by the senseless and heart-breaking murder of a woman whose name we have all come to know, Lyra McKee, and whom through the outstanding tributes of her partner, family and friends we all wish we had known in life.

As a politician and Tánaiste there are many things you experience that are unique, but there are only a handful of experiences you know will stay with you until the end of your days.

Being in the front pews of St Anne's Cathedral as an unstoppable wave of applause, hope and demand hit the most senior politicians from the UK and Ireland in the base of our spines is one such moment I will never forget.

The words of Father Martin Magill summed up the desire and frustration of all communities in Northern Ireland in a sentence: "Why in God's name does it take the death of a 29-year old woman, with her whole life in front of her, to get to this point?"

Last summer, violence in Derry saw live bullets being fired and police officers narrowly escaping injury or death. In January, seven young people were minutes from being killed after they passed the car bomb that sat in the centre of Derry.

However, on April 18 the cowards claimed a victim. The fact it was a journalist and writer who was a shining example of everything Northern Ireland can achieve is the reason so many people have come together to mourn.

The night before Lyra McKee's funeral, I sat in Strand Road police station in Derry with the officers who had tried to save her life.

These men and women are hardened by the fact petrol bombs can be thrown at them in the course of their everyday work, but on Tuesday night they were numbed and vulnerable at the fact a young woman had died beside them.

Despite their Land Rovers being alight with petrol and live ammunition being fired at them, the PSNI officers left their secure position to get to Lyra after she had been hit.

They made the decision to drive to Altnagelvin Hospital. Officers performed CPR on Lyra for the entire journey and they stayed and supported her partner and friends as the horrible news of her death was confirmed. The leadership shown by the PSNI in Derry has rightly been applauded by the community it serves.

While I heard Father Magill's rallying call for political leadership loud and clear, I also heard what he said about the events in Derry as the news of Lyra's murder sunk in: "I commend our political leaders for standing together in Creggan on Good Friday."

Arlene Foster, Michelle O'Neill, Colum Eastwood, Robin Swann and Naomi Long were not ordered to release a joint statement by anyone or told to go into the Creggan. When a dark moment threatened to drag Northern Ireland back to a dark past their natural inclination was to do the right thing.

We now have a window where the Irish and British governments are calling the parties together. We have all spoken in person and on the phone many times in the last week and without exception I believe all the party leaders are genuine in their desire to return to Stormont.

As we meet in the weeks ahead, a conversation I had with Ms Joan McKee will be foremost in my mind.

Standing in the side chapel of St Anne's was the President of Ireland, the Taoiseach, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom as well as myself as Tánaiste, the Secretary of State and ministers of both governments.

Despite all the power of those elected offices, we were standing there as a group that was utterly powerless to comfort a woman who had, as Joan put it, "lost her baby".

We owe it to Joan and Lyra McKee to make sure no other ceasefire babies are murdered in the prime of their lives and to make sure Northern Ireland has a functioning government.

There is never a perfect time to do the right thing in Northern Ireland. However, there is a right time and that time is now.

Simon Coveney is Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister

Irish Independent

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