What more can one say about the marvellous young journalist and human being who was Lyra McKee, and about her killing on Good Friday eve by the murderous losers of the so-called ‘New IRA’? As a former journalist from Northern Ireland I feel I should venture a few thoughts as a kind of tribute.
Lyra was an activist for LGBT rights whose compassionate understanding of human nature was very unusual for one so young. Selected by Forbes magazine as one of their ’30 under 30 in media in Europe’ three years ago, she was destined for great things. In a recent TED talk, she told the story of visiting a mosque in Orlando in Florida which, despite Islam’s opposition to homosexuality, had condemned the 2016 mass shooting in the Pulse gay nightclub in that city when some Christian churches were refusing to bury the victims because of their sexuality. She said at the age of 16 she had rejected religion,and decided she no longer wanted to talk to religious people, because religion had shaped how gay people are treated in the world, and told them that their sexuality was evil, often to the point of driving them to take their own lives. She recounted how as a teenager in north Belfast she had bargained with God, asking him not to send her to hell because she was gay.
After her experience in Orlando she had realised that she needed once more to converse with people of faith: not to berate them, but to take on the Sisyphean task of trying to persuade them that traditional church thinking on homosexuality was wrong. She needed to have ‘difficult conversations’ with such people, ‘to fight for the hearts and minds of those who oppose us.’ She said that anybody she had met of formerly extreme views – anti-gay, neo-Nazi – who had changed those views had done so as a result of a conversation with an erstwhile opponent.
Conversation between opponents is what needs to happen now again in Northern Ireland. In 2015 Sinn Fein published a booklet entitled Uncomfortable Conversations, which featured a number of prominent Protestants, and the occasional unionist. It is now time for Sinn Fein to take the initiative again, to reach out to the DUP, to a more urgent uncomfortable conversation that would lead to the resumption of power-sharing government in the North. Because for all its many faults, nationalists and unionists working together for the common good of Northern Ireland – with the extremely difficult unity question postponed for the present – remains the only way to peace, prosperity and the beginning of reconciliation there.
As Seamus Mallon writes in his forthcoming memoir, A Shared Home Place (to be published by Lilliput Press on 17th May): ‘This is the great conundrum of this small patch of earth, a place which two different groups of people love and treasure as their common home, but neither of which have yet found a way to define and describe so that it includes the other as a co-equal partner and thus becomes a truly shared home place.’
Before we even begin to talk about Irish unity, we need a Northern Ireland which is starting to come to peace with itself. Lyra McKee’s tragic killing could open an unexpected door. Arlene Foster and Mary Lou McDonald standing together in solidarity with the people of Creggan on Good Friday was a good start. Now it is time for the two governments to step in. Given the lack of competence of the present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, there is a particular responsibility on a skilled senior politician like the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, to give a lead; to use the window of opportunity opened up by the six month delay in Britain leaving the EU to press hard for a resumption of inter-party talks to get Stormont restored.
If the main issues between the DUP and Sinn Fein are those which led to the breakdown 14 months ago – an Irish language act and marriage equality – they are surely not insurmountable (and by all accounts, Sinn Fein was at its most open and flexible in the weeks before that breakdown). Coveney needs to be on the phone to Karen Bradley as soon as the Easter break ends, with a proposal for new talks to begin once the local and European elections are over on 23 May.
Over the past two decades, the Department of Foreign Affairs has shown that it can be a good listener when it comes to the views and fears of grass roots unionists, whether in the form of small grants from its Reconciliation Funds or regular invitations to conferences and round-table meetings in the South. In this it has been ably abetted by the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation and the Kennedy Institute for Conflict Intervention at Maynooth University.
Now we need to fill the perilous vacuum that Northern nationalists’ fears of a new post-Brexit border and the absence of any agreed regional government have inevitably opened up – and which the violent madmen of dissident republicanism are always keen to move into. The Irish government and its highly regarded diplomats – among the best in the world, former EU commission head José Manuel Barroso told the British Irish Association last year – need to step up to the plate and persuade the British once again to work with them on a renewed peacebuilding mission.
We desperately need the politicians to begin talking again. If necessary they must lead their reluctant grass-roots where they don’t want to go; that is what courageous leadership is about (they should take their cue from Gerry Adams, David Trimble or even the late Ian Paisley). Remember the Good Friday Agreement required 22 months of talking. With a bit of luck it won’t take that long this time. I have absolutely no illusions about the difficulties involved given the lack of trust between the two communities and their leaders. But wouldn’t the greatest tribute to the brave and brilliant young woman who was Lyra McKee be a resumed power-sharing government in Belfast by October? I may be a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.