The killing of journalist Lyra McKee during a riot in Derry in late April led to a massive outpouring of grief and anger across the North of Ireland. The shots which killed Lyra were fired by a member of the so-called New IRA, the most active of the dissident republican groups, and they have suffered an enormous backlash since.
Lyra was a gifted and promising young writer and journalist and LGBT+ activist. Her article “Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies” investigated the massively high rates of suicide among young people in the last 20 years, especially in places like North Belfast, where she grew up.
“We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined never to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us.”
Alongside the despair, many of Lyra’s generation have also been at the forefront of campaigns over issues such as LGBT+ rights, women’s equality and abortion rights, inspired and encouraged by similar mass movements in the South of Ireland. They are overwhelmingly anti-sectarian.
One of Lyra’s friends in Derry said, “We have had enough. There is a younger generation coming up in the town and they don’t need guns put in their hands. They need jobs, they need a better health service and education.”
But this desire for change has repeatedly come up against the political establishment in the North, which has relied on communal division, and has blocked reform and presided over austerity and cuts to public services.
The NI Assembly when it was running and dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin, passed on the Tory austerity measures, including 20,000 public sector job cuts, and welfare “reforms” of universal credit, PIP assessments for disabled people and the bedroom tax. These measures have all been rolled out in the North this year and are having a devastating impact, none more so than in places like North Belfast or Creggan.
But the conditions fuelling the alienation of deprived working class areas of the North is unlikely to be resolved by the return of the Stormont Assembly.
The priest at Lyra’s funeral in Belfast provoked a standing ovation in the packed cathedral when he asked the leaders of the political parties, who had appeared together in Creggan the day after Lyra’s killing, “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 us to this point?”
The Assembly has been in suspension for over two years, ever since Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness resigned in the face of corruption scandals, citing the DUP’s lack of respect for equality for nationalists. But even if the NI Assembly is restored it is unlikely to deliver on these hopes.
The day after the funeral, DUP leader Arlene Foster told a friend of Lyra’s that the DUP would not be changing its position of absolute opposition to gay marriage. The leaked text of a proposed agreement negotiated early last year showed that Sinn Féin was willing to give up most of its “red lines”, one of which was marriage equality, in order to restore the Assembly.
That deal was scuppered by a revolt by the sectarian Orange Order and the loyalist paramilitary UDA, both significant bases of support for the DUP. In the week after Lyra’s killing a DUP council candidate in Belfast, David McKee, was pictured at a UDA celebration, but was not expelled by the DUP, making a mockery of the DUP’s condemnation of the New IRA.
The New IRA has come under enormous pressure since the killing. But it is unlikely to disappear completely. In an interview in the Sunday Times a week after Lyra’s killing the New IRA admitted that its armed campaign would never defeat the British state. “The attacks are symbolic. They are propaganda. As long as you have the British in Ireland and the country remains partitioned, there will be an IRA.”
The killing of Lyra McKee shows just how counter-productive this strategy is. The riots in Creggan were provoked by a series of police house raids, aimed at disrupting the New IRA’s Easter Rising commemoration march. But the PSNI has emerged stronger from it, claiming that it has been inundated with information from people in the Creggan, an area that would previously have rarely engaged with the police.
Karen Bradley, the severely incompetent Tory NI Secretary, who was facing demands to resign after telling parliament that British soldiers who had killed civilians during the Troubles had not committed a crime, was able to present herself as the face of reason after the killing.
The alternative in the North lies in those mass movements for social change, combined with radical socialist politics. There is an emerging socialist left, North and South, primarily around People Before Profit, which is standing candidates in Belfast and Derry in the local council elections on 2 May as we go to press.
As Gerry Carroll, People Before Profit MLA, put it after Lyra’s killing: “While the Good Friday Agreement brought peace, it also locked the ‘two communities’ into a process of permanent competition with each other. Far from sectarian sentiments declining, polarisation has grown.
“In this situation, small minorities still believe that armed struggle — rather than mass action by working people — is the way to achieve their ambitions. After all, they were told that for decades by the very Sinn Fein leaders who currently condemn them.
“People Before Profit advocates a different route. We encourage and help to organise mass action against poverty and repression. We want to see a 32 county socialist Ireland that will be achieved through working class people challenging both rotten states on this island. It is from that stance that we oppose the actions of the New IRA.”