Monday 19 August 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Lyra's death exposes the lie that IRA violence was ever justified'

Dissident republicans thrive in the moral vacuum left by sneaking regard for the Provisional IRA, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Journalist Lyra McKee was the victim of a fatal shooting in Derry late at night on Easter Thursday
Journalist Lyra McKee was the victim of a fatal shooting in Derry late at night on Easter Thursday

If mobile phones had existed during the Troubles, there would now be a hoard of shocking footage similar to that sent from the scene of a fatal shooting in Derry late at night on Easter Thursday.

Watching it that evening before going to bed, knowing a 29-year-old woman had died as a result of that act of recklessness, was appalling enough. Waking on Friday morning to discover the woman who died was journalist and author Lyra McKee only added to the incredulity.

Scratching about to find some crumbs of comfort, it is tempting to hope that, if any good should come from her death, it may be to staunch the rise of sympathy for dissident republicans in certain disaffected communities in Northern Ireland. Friday's vigil at the site of the shooting was a touching testament to the war-weariness of the community, and the presence of DUP leader Arlene Foster was itself symbolically potent.

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History, unfortunately, suggests any such setback for fanatics is only ever temporary. People forget. They get drawn back in. They can easily be manipulated into anger again at whatever scapegoats the militants conspire to demonise.

Republican dissidents' mouthpieces in Saoradh have already issued a statement declaring Lyra was "killed accidentally", as if the death of innocent bystanders is not an entirely predictable outcome of firing guns in a crowded residential area. That battle to muddy the waters is an integral part of the traditional blame game, too.

Lyra's death is so pointless that it is hard to even muster the energy to mine political meaning from it, though that won't stop the usual suspects from trying. Within hours, some were already saying her death should act as a warning against Brexit. Others pointed a finger at the continuing stalemate at Stormont, which shows no sign of ending two years after former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness collapsed the power-sharing executive.

Local politicians on all sides deserve every criticism for the self-indulgence which has prevented them from reaching an agreement to restore normal business at Stormont; political uncertainty inevitably fuels the fringes. Vacuums will be filled. But something feels off about the eagerness to draw hasty, simplistic lessons from what just happened in Derry.

For one thing, it risks handing dissidents a ready-made list of excuses. Lyra did not die because of what's happening in Stormont, Westminster, Dublin or Brussels. She died because of a self-pitying ideological rage with deep roots in Irish history which, years on from the Belfast Agreement, is still being too frequently indulged rather than challenged.

What has changed in the past few years during which dissident republicanism has enjoyed a measurable - though it's important to stress still marginal - renaissance? One thing is that talk of a united Ireland has become rife.

Border poll chatter has been stimulated by Brexit, but it was still a calculated political decision to up the ante in that way, and it wasn't only republicans who reintroduced this dangerous tone, but mainstream, moderate voices. They might have been confident of keeping the Northern beast chained up, but historically it's always been a risky strategy. In tandem, anti-Britishness has been normalised to an alarming extent. How could this ever have ended well?

The message that absolutely must go out from this latest atrocity is to stop romanticising the past.

Public discourse should never have been allowed to degenerate to the point where those who supported the IRA campaign are now free to whitewash the reality of it, seducing a new generation into seeing the Troubles as a noble struggle for freedom.

If nothing else, the mobile phone footage has exposed violence anew as a grotesquerie. It's not glorious. It's sordid, ugly, and the men who killed Lyra are contemptible figures, as were those who came before them.

Only two years ago, Sinn Fein's deputy leader, Michelle O'Neill, said of a group of IRA members shot dead after peppering a police station with machine-gun fire that they were "great lads" who acted "in defence of their community and of their country".

That is the language which dissident spokespersons now parrot. When Saoradh says it warned that "oppression would inevitably be met with resistance" and "the blame... lies squarely at the feet of the British Crown Forces", it's the same as O'Neill saying of those "four great lads" that "they never went looking for war, but it came to them". Such saccharine lies need to be confronted more vigorously.

To be scrupulously fair, Sinn Fein has taken a stand against republican dissidents in Northern Ireland, most recently when threats forced the cancellation of a youth event in Derry's Bogside attended by the PSNI. But it would be equally dishonest not to admit the party's sudden distaste for violence is hard to take at face value.

There's a "damned if they do, damned if they don't" element to all this, it's true. But that scepticism is based on genuine bafflement as to how they can reconcile condemning violence now with celebrating it in retrospect.

In the very city where Lyra was shot dead last week, Martin McGuinness was laid to rest under a headstone boasting of his role as an Oglach (Volunteer). It's duplicitous to expect young people in Northern Ireland to understand the sheer horror of political violence when that is the example they have been set by the mainstream republican movement. Why should the hood who shot dead Lyra not dream that he might one day be hailed as a patriotic hero, too?

That will be dismissed by the usual suspects as point- scoring, but how to commemorate the past without condoning terrorism is still the challenge for republicanism, as it has been since the Belfast Agreement was signed 21 years ago to the day of this newest murder, and they are no closer to solving it than they ever were.

Dissidents thrive in the space created by that disreputable ambivalence, and politicians of all hues need to be mindful not to let their frustration over Brexit make it bigger than it needs to be.

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