Lyra McKee was five feet in height but no one ever managed to measure her courage.
The 29-year-old grew up a Catholic in North Belfast, fought for LGBT rights in a deeply traditional country, and used her journalistic talent to pursue the powerful and bring their misdeeds to light.
She had the mettle of men twice her stature and her nervy tone turned to granite when she encountered an injustice that had to be set right. Lyra was a constant reminder that there’s no Ulsterman as tough as an Ulster woman.
On Thursday night, when rioting broke out in Creggan, the predominantly Nationalist area of Derry where Lyra lived with her partner Sara, there was only one place she was going to be. I’m looking at her now on the CCTV footage — up on her tiptoes, cameraphone aloft, trying to get as close to events as possible. There are petrol bombs exploding amid armoured police vehicles and balaclava-clad men with guns lurk on the corner.
Most of us would retreat to safety but here is where the story is and so here is where Lyra is. Here a gunman’s bullet is about to cut down this brilliant, determined journalist. She died as she lived: the very best and bravest of our trade.
The words struggle with me. They too know this is all wrong and they want no part in it. There has been a terrible mistake, a crossed wire, a medical chart misread or a police report mislabelled. Denial is a powerful drug but its kick is fast-diminishing.
Working in journalism is supposed to inoculate you against this sort of thing. We are connoisseurs of death-knock clichés and yet every time Lyra smiles at me awkwardly from Sky News, I am that dazed neighbour on the doorstep: It hasn’t sunk in. It can’t be true. It does feel like a bad dream.
Lyra had signed a two-book deal with Faber & Faber, the first of which, The Lost Boys, an investigation into the disappearance of children during the Troubles, was due out next year. Forbes had named her to its ‘30 under 30’ list of rising stars to watch out for. A TEDx talk on the 2016 terrorist attack at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida – delivered at the Stormont parliament building in 2017 – was widely praised.
Lyra had her whole life ahead of her. Another cliché, but true. She has been robbed of her future but so has Northern Ireland.
I first got to know Lyra through social media in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum. She came across as grounded and yet riotously funny – an optimist with a sceptic’s sense of humour. We finally got together in October 2015, when she paid a visit to Glasgow and we shared a gossipy lunch punctuated by frequent bursts of snorting laughter.
Everyone remembers the first time they met Lyra. It was like a little sunshine bomb going off. You were addressed as either ‘muhstur’ or ‘muhssus’ depending on your preference and always met with a Tiggerish hug.
She was infectiously good and made you want to be a better journalist and a better person. She loved Scotland and felt an affinity for the people and tried to trace her grandparents’ time in Glasgow.
She asked me for a tour of STV, where I then worked, which I happily provided, although I was somewhat bemused by the request and her breathless enthusiasm about the place, as though I was taking her backstage at a concert.
Lyra revered the practice of journalism – the phone pounding and the information trading, the tip that started a new investigation and the cagey source who stood it all up – and was in her element watching other journalists at work.
Our phone conversations were epics on life, love, politics – and stories. Lyra was always working on a story. When I finally accept that she is gone, I’ll grieve for her but I’ll also grieve for the stories that will never be told.
We talked about the achingly slow pace of progress in Northern Ireland and the future of power-sharing. We discussed Scottish independence and Donald Trump and whether gay marriage would ever come to Ulster.
I’ll miss her mocking my terrible Ulster accent – ‘Aye, yuh’ve been watching too much of The Fall there, Stephen’ – and us taking turns, given how often terrorism and murder were our topics, to assure any GCHQ agent listening in that we were journalists.
When I found myself in a very bad – and very public – situation in a former job, Lyra was on hand with her blunt wit: ‘Christ, yuh’ve had more page leads than me this week.’
In November, she was in Edinburgh and she wanted to get together and introduce me to Sara. I was having one of my tedious depressive episodes and couldn’t face meeting anyone. She was understanding as ever but how I wish I’d gone for one last ‘muhstur’ and one last hug.
Lyra’s murder has been linked to the New IRA, a republican splinter group who flatter themselves to think they are ‘dissidents’, as though hurling petrol bombs at PSNI vans is akin to running a samizdat in 1970s East Berlin. We should call them what they are: terrorists, murderers and relics of a Northern Ireland most are glad to be done with.
Her killers may yearn for that Northern Ireland — the Ulster of the balaclava and the gun — but Lyra McKee’s Northern Ireland is one still on the path to justice, equality and prosperity. Lyra was the living promise of peace and of a post-sectarian future.
In 2014, she wrote: ‘The Good Friday Agreement has created a new generation of young people, freed from the cultural constraints and prejudices of the one before. It used to be that being a Unionist or Nationalist was an accident of birth. You didn’t decide whether you were for the Union or not; the decision was made for you. Your friends were drawn from your own kind.’
Lyra understood that the only way Northern Ireland could truly move on was by confronting its past and the injustices that the Troubles allowed to fester unnoticed.
That is what motivated her journalism and in her brief time here, she made her community and her country a measurably better place, more at peace with itself. A place where your own kind could be anyone you wanted.
There are those who say Lyra’s murder will prove to be a sea change. That the hardliners and the hold-outs will see the cruel futility of conflict.
The same was said about Robert McCartney, a Catholic father-of-two killed by members of the Provisional IRA in 2005. The same was said about many others. We need senseless death not to be in vain because the hope for something better helps get us through.
But Lyra’s death was in vain. There was more value to her life than the possibility of pricking the consciences of a few psychopaths with Bobby Sands tattoos.
Who she was and what she was going to do, they have taken away forever. They will not put down their guns now and, even if they did, it would not repair the damage they have done to Lyra’s family and the community.
Lyra’s example comes not in her death but in the way she lived her life. There is evil in the world — cold, cowardly evil. We saw it on the streets of Creggan on Thursday night. But there is goodness, too, and Lyra showed us what it looks like. She taught us to have the courage to care about other people.
Be brave. Choose to be a Lyra.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: email@example.com. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feature image © International Journalism Festival / CC BY-SA 2.0.