Northern Ireland Mourns Lyra McKee, Journalist and LGBT Activist Shot at Nationalist Riot

Lyra McKee, a young writer and activist for LGBT rights, was killed by a bullet fired in the direction of police officers and journalists in Derry.

LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - APRIL 19: Sara Canning, partner of Lyra McKee speaks at a rally for journalist and author Lyra McKee near the scene of her shooting on April 19, 2019 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Journalist and Author Lyra McKee was killed in a 'terror incident' while reporting from the scene of rioting in Derry's Creggan neighbourhood after police raided properties in the Mulroy Park and Galliagh area on the night of Thursday 18th April 2019.  Reports say that she was killed as shots were fired from a single gun. Lyra McKee was well known for covering the lasting trauma and the violence of the Northern Ireland Troubles. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Sara Canning, whose partner Lyra McKee was killed on Thursday night, spoke at a vigil in her memory on Friday in Derry, Northern Ireland. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Lyra McKee, a young journalist and activist for LGBT rights in Northern Ireland, was killed Thursday night by a bullet fired in the direction of police officers during a riot in the northwestern city she advised people to call neither Derry nor Londonderry, but “LegenDerry.”

McKee, who was 29, was mourned in a series of vigils on Friday, including one addressed by her partner, Sara Canning, on the street where the journalist was killed while covering a riot in the city’s Creggan neighborhood.

“This cannot stand,” Canning said, choking back tears. “Lyra’s death must not be in vain because her life was a shining light in everyone else’s life, and her legacy will live on in the light that she’s left behind.”

On Saturday, the Police Service of Northern Ireland announced the arrest of two teenagers, aged 18 and 19, in connection with McKee’s death, during anti-police rioting in Creggan. The force also released surveillance camera footage of one masked man firing a handgun in her direction from behind a burning vehicle and another apparently collecting bullet casings from the pavement moments later.

Neither of the suspects had even been born when the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was signed, officially ending three decades of sectarian civil war in Northern Ireland.

Ireland’s president, Michael D. Higgins, signed a condolence book during a visit to Belfast on Friday, and told reporters that McKee’s life was “taken away by those who represent nobody on this island.”

In a sign of how grief and outrage at McKee’s death was shared across Northern Ireland’s still-divided communities, the gathering in Creggan on Friday was addressed by the leaders of both Sinn Fein, a political party representing the region’s mainly Catholic, Irish nationalist community, and the Democratic Unionist Party, which represents the mainly Protestant community that wants to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Those political leaders have recently been deadlocked over the collapse of a regional power-sharing executive, which requires the agreement of both communities to function, and the looming threat of Brexit, which could undermine the still-fragile peace in Northern Ireland by closing the currently open border with the Republic of Ireland.

McKee was killed while reporting on rioting that began after the local police service raided the nationalist neighborhood looking for arms stockpiled by dissident militants associated with a group calling itself the New IRA. That fringe group of Irish nationalists dreams of reigniting the armed struggle for a united Ireland, which they trace back to an uprising that began on Easter weekend in 1916. A more recent attempt to unite the island of Ireland into one republic by force was abandoned the Irish Republican Army in 1994, when a ceasefire paved the way for a peace agreement signed on the holiday of Good Friday in 1998.

At the time of her death, McKee was covering a street battle that broke out when the police were stopped in Creggan by young residents hurling, bottles, bricks, fireworks, and petrol bombs.

A grainy video clip circulating online seemed to capture, from the rioters’ perspective, the moment that two gunshots were fired in the direction of the police, and a group of bystanders and journalists who stood behind their armored vehicles, at what they took to be a safe distance. That recording is punctuated by cheers from very young-sounding voices, celebrating each shot. One of those bullets seems to have killed McKee.

McKee’s first book, “The Lost Boys,” investigating the disappearance of children in Belfast in the 1970s, is due to be published next year by Faber. Her literary agent, Will Francis, shared a passage from her proposal for that book, about growing up in North Belfast, near the road once known as the Murder Mile.

Many people have grown to dislike the use of the word ‘war’ to describe what happened here. The term ‘The Conflict’ became a more acceptable alternative, even if it made a 30-year battle sound like a lover’s tiff. It’s got the ring of a euphemism, the kind one might use to refer to a shameful family secret during a reunion lunch… I witnessed its last years, as armed campaigns died and gave way to an uneasy tension we natives of Northern Ireland have named ‘peace’, and I lived with its legacy, watching friends and family members cope with the trauma of what they could not forget.

McKee was also mourned online, where her life and work were celebrated by friends and colleagues.

Some of the tributes included screenshots of McKee’s own tweets, including her coverage of the riot.

Many admirers shared McKee’s autobiographical “Letter to My 14-year-old Self” — about growing up gay in Northern Ireland, where homophobic bigotry has long united two socially conservative faith communities otherwise at odds.

Others pointed to McKee’s reporting on suicide among members of her generation, who were promised the dividends of peace but still lived in a society traumatized by decades of war.

The Irish writer and editor Peter Geoghegan urged people to read McKee’s investigation of asylum-seekers forced to endure domestic abuse.

Una Mullally, an activist and Irish Times columnist, shared a moving TED talk McKee gave in 2017 in Belfast, in which she described an epiphany she had during a conversation at a mosque in Orlando, Florida after the Pulse nightclub massacre in that city. Having rejected the Catholic background that felt like a prison to her, McKee said that she realized that day that it was necessary to have “difficult conversations” with people whose religion makes it hard for them to accept anyone who is lesbian, bisexual, gay, or transgender.

The killing of McKee also led to a profound backlash against the nationalist militants, including condemnation from Gerry Adams, who is widely suspected to have been an operational leader of the IRA before his embrace of politics.

Leona O’Neill, a journalist who was standing next to McKee when she was gunned own, reported on Saturday that graffiti near the scene of the crime in Creggan has been repainted, so that the slogan, “IRA Undefeated Army, Unfinished Revolution,” now reads: “IRA are done. Defeated Army. Finished Revolution.”

Updated: Saturday, April 20, 7:56 a.m.
This article was updated to report the arrest of two suspects in connection with the killing on Lyra McKee, and the release of surveillance footage that appeared to show a masked gunman firing the fatal shot.

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