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Remembering Lyra McKee, 1990-2019

Lyra McKee

Photo: Chiho Tang / Oranga Creative / PA Wire / PA Images

On 18th April the journalist and activist Lyra McKee was fatally shot in the head while observing a riot in Derry. A few days later dissident republican group the New IRA accepted responsibility for the death of the Belfast-born 29-year-old, who was standing close to a police vehicle at the moment she was killed.

Her friend and publisher Tina Calder recalls waking up to the terrible news from Derry. “My phone was going crazy with my sister trying to get in touch with me,” she recalls. “I called her and she was screaming down the phone, ‘Tina, have you seen the news? It’s Lyra, she’s dead’. I just thought, it can’t be. I just went numb.”

McKee’s killing, which happened in the predominantly republican Creggan estate ahead of the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule, was later described by police as a terrorist incident and caused shock and consternation on both sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland. On the eve of McKee’s funeral in Belfast, which was attended by UK prime minister Theresa May, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar and Irish president Michael D Higgins, her family described her as a “gentle, innocent soul who wouldn’t wish ill on anyone.”

Six hundred people filled St Anne’s Cathedral, hundreds more stood outside to listen to the service on loudspeakers, and members of the National Union of Journalists formed a guard of honour. Flowers on McKee’s hearse spelled out ‘Team Lyra’ in the rainbow colours of the LGBT+ community she had supported through her writing and activism.

A mural of Lyra McKee in Belfast city centre. Photo: Paul Faith / AFP / Getty Images

In early August a far smaller ceremony took place at Belfast’s Linen Hall Library to mark the posthumous publication of McKee’s first book, Angels With Blue Faces, by Excalibur Press. “We kept Lyra’s book launch very discreet and private,” says Calder, who owns Excalibur. “I felt mixed emotions because I was there holding her book and feeling incredibly proud for Lyra, but also regretful because if we’d said to her, ‘No Lyra, no more changes, we’re publishing now,’ she might have been able to hold her first book in her own hands before she died. She was always looking for ways to improve her work. At one stage in our email chain we had what was called the ‘final, final, final draft’ of the book, and shortly after that came, ‘Honestly, I promise this is the final draft’. Lyra was a perfectionist.”

The book is about the murder of Ulster Unionist party MP Robert Bradford by the IRA in November 1981 and some of the conspiracy theories linking the killing to the decades-old abuse scandal at the Kincora Boys’ Home in Belfast. “She did five years of interviews with Robert Bradford’s friends, colleagues and acquaintances, getting as many new questions as answers,” says Calder. “That was Lyra, always going down rabbit holes.”

She had a curiosity about the world that couldn’t be quenched”

On the first occasion they met, Calder was struck by McKee’s obsessive thirst for knowledge. “I didn’t think anyone could ask more questions than me,” Calder says. “But then I met Lyra and I realised I was an amateur. It was an absolute obsession. She had a curiosity about the world that couldn’t be quenched. She was constantly analysing and critically assessing, and that’s what made her so good at her job.”

That initial meeting came about because McKee was working on some stories on sexual violence in Northern Ireland and had interviewed Calder’s mother, Eileen, the founder of the Rape Crisis Centre in Belfast. “My mum was so impressed by her,” Calder recalls. “So she asked me if I’d give her some work experience. She went off afterwards and did amazing things.”

Those things included being named one of “30 under 30 in European media” by Forbes, giving a TED talk in which she opened up about her struggles growing up gay in Northern Ireland, writing pieces for The Atlantic and Private Eye, and landing a two-book deal with Faber & Faber, who will publish her second posthumous book, The Lost Boys, about the disappearances of young men during the Troubles, in 2020.

She would have had an incredibly bright future. There would have been an awful lot more to come from her”

She also made an impact outside journalism: at a vigil shortly after her death, her partner, Sara Canning, said that Northern Ireland’s LGBT+ community had been “left without a tireless advocate and activist”, while she had been left without “the love of my life, the woman I was planning to grow old with”.

In accordance with her wishes, McKee’s share of the proceeds from Angels With Blue Faces will go to Paper Trail, a Belfast non-profit organisation which helps people access official archives so they can find information relating to the Troubles. “Lyra worked with them significantly and they helped her access an awful lot of information,” says Calder. “When she told me she was donating all her proceeds to them I said ‘What do you mean all your proceeds? You don’t have to give them everything.’ She was so selfless.”

“I think she would have had an incredibly bright future,” adds Calder. “She was so willing to learn every element of the journalism industry. There would have been an awful lot more to come from her.”

Lyra always believed that she could change the world”

On 23rd April, the New IRA apologised for the murder of McKee, who they said was “tragically killed while standing beside enemy forces”. According to Calder, the young journalist’s death has energised the opposition to paramilitary groups such as the New IRA and raised awareness of the ongoing problems in Northern Ireland both at home and further afield. “It made the community stand up and say ‘no’,” she says. “It also created a wave of interest in a generation who thought they were unaffected by [sectarian tensions], and because it didn’t involve them they didn’t think they needed to do anything about it. One of their own has been hit, and they are galvanised.”

Calder believes that McKee’s death has put pressure on politicians to bridge the political divide in Northern Ireland, a divide that has resulted in a lack of government since January 2017, when the power-sharing coalition collapsed. “It will also politicise an awful lot of young people,” she says. “I hope that those who came out on the streets around the time of Lyra’s death and shared the #NotInOurName hashtag will in some way take action, whether it’s at the ballot box or as an activist or just by trying to change the way their family thinks.”

“I do feel a wave of change is happening,” Calder adds. “I think Lyra always believed that she could change the world – and I believe she is achieving that goal.”

Lyra McKee’s posthumous debut book, Angels With Blue Faces, is available from Excalibur Press priced at £9.99.

 

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