by Natasia Kalajdziovski
‘Derry tonight. Absolute madness’. These were the last words tweeted out by Northern Irish journalist Lyra McKee on the evening of 18 April 2019, before she was shot in the head by the dissident republican group The New Irish Republican Army (New IRA). A promising young voice for her generation – one which has been dubbed the ‘Ceasefire Babies’ – McKee was murdered just a week after the twenty-first anniversary of the signing of The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) which brought an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Although the Troubles, as it is colloquially called, formally ended over two decades ago, its legacy continues to claim the lives of people in Northern Ireland.
The context which led to McKee’s death is not unfamiliar to those with knowledge of the Troubles. McKee had recently moved to Londonderry, or Derry, from her hometown of Belfast to be with her partner, Sarah Canning. A night of rioting had engulfed the Creggan Estate and McKee – in her role as a journalist and extensive writer on life in Northern Ireland – went to observe. This was a kind of rioting that was far from unknown to Derry and its people. The city housed some of the first civil rights events during the Troubles, including the march on 5 October 1968 – frequently cited as the true starting point of the conflict – in which the province’s police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), baton-charged protesters in full view of television cameras broadcasting the event. It was also the site of the infamous Battle of the Bogside, a three-day riot in August 1969 between the RUC, the B-Specials, and civilians which led to the establishment of ‘Free Derry’, a self-declared Irish republican ‘no-go’ enclave of the city. Rioting spread to other parts of Northern Ireland and the fallout of the event, most notably, firmly entrenched Westminster into Northern Irish affairs through its deployment of the British Army on its own soil – one which would come to be the Army’s longest continuous deployment in its history.
The potential for violence in spring 2019 was not unexpected: it was April, a time in which the Easter Rising of 1916 was always marked, and the New IRA – alongside their political wing, Saoradh – had been more vocal on their social media channels leading up to the GFA’s anniversary on the 10th. In the week between the latter’s anniversary and McKee’s murder eight days later, local social media posts showed a convoy of police crossing the River Foyle in preparation for any potential clashes. The intervening days witnessed boys in hoodies, tracksuits, and scarves come together to hurl petrol bombs and other ‘missiles’ at the police, resulting in a van being set alight, followed by a car.
By this juncture, a riot such as this – of the police coming in; of local youth responding in kind – had become a kind of orchestrated dance, a playing of parts, so well-versed after more than fifty years of repetition on the same stage. For McKee, her experiences of the riot would have been similar to so many others who had come before her in Derry: the civil rights marchers; the Bogsiders; the civilians who were met with bullets on Bloody Sunday in 1972. McKee would meet the same fate as those who were killed on Bloody Sunday, this time silenced by the guns of dissident republicans intent upon continuing the armed struggle despite the protestations of an exhausted society who overwhelmingly want nothing to do with it.
For McKee and the Ceasefire Babies, it was not supposed to be like this – it was not supposed to be more repetitions of the past on a well-worn stage. McKee wrote extensively on the Ceasefire Babies, a generation to whom, being born in 1990, she belonged. They are, in her words, ‘those too young to remember the worst of the terror because we were either in nappies or just out of them when the [1994 ceasefire] was called’, although it is a name she has ‘always hated’, for it suggested that ‘growing up in the 90s in Belfast was a stroll’.
In a ground-breaking 2016 article entitled ‘Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies’, McKee found that in the 16 years which proceeded the end of the Troubles, more people had taken their own lives than died during them at the hands of paramilitary or state violence – a staggering reality. While suicide had most strikingly affected those who had lived through the worst period of Troubles-related violence, from 1970-1977, it had disproportionately affected the Ceasefire Babies, too. They were the ones who were supposed to reap the greatest benefits from a newly peaceful Northern Ireland – and yet, nearly one-fifth of suicides recorded since 1998 come from this generation who had no direct experience of the violence. In just over a six-week period in 2004, the Ardoyne area of Belfast alone saw 13 Ceasefire Babies, all young men, kill themselves – an incomprehensible level of loss for one community at an unfathomable generational cost.
Further, according to findings presented in McKee’s investigation, 39% of the Northern Irish population suffers from post-traumatic stress related to events experienced during the conflict. But it seems, too, that the inter-generational trauma of violence has seeped its way into the lives of McKee’s generation – either from a mental health perspective or, in McKee’s case, in the physical manifestation of that lingering connection to the past. Perhaps most unjustly, however, the Ceasefire Babies have little interest in the baggage of the past which they are invariably forced to carry. Writing in 2014 about the irrelevance to her generation about the old constitutional debate, McKee put plainly: ‘I don’t want a united Ireland or a stronger Union. I just want a better life’.
It is perhaps McKee’s general observations of the conflict and its ongoing memory that bear most repeating:
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 […] 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.
Living with – and dying as a result of – the legacy of the Troubles has unfortunately come to define Lyra McKee’s life. And yet, its legacy is not just the burden to bear of the people of Northern Ireland; rather, it is arguably that of the British state, too.
At McKee’s funeral, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Northern Irish Secretary Karen Bradley – alongside Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Irish President Michael D. Higgins – were all in attendance as both a sign of solidarity and as a collective condemnation of the violence which had led to McKee’s death. After the funeral, Canning – McKee’s partner – revealed in an interview that when they had come to shake her hand during the service, she ‘took each of them to task for failing to take responsibility for Northern Ireland, thus creating a vacuum that Lyra’s killers had occupied’. Although in mourning, Canning was not acting in grief. Rather, she took her chance to speak a kind of truth to powers which had, alongside the actions of violent paramilitary groups operating during the conflict, left a legacy for which not all lingering questions felt addressed. The lack of answers, the lack of closure, the lack of truth and reconciliation, can only work to impede the civilian population’s ability to cope with, in McKee’s words, ‘the trauma of what they could not forget’.
The legacy of the Troubles, however, need not be one that is solely defined by its trauma, injustice, and violence. It is one defined by hope, too, and the potential for change – and the responses to McKee’s death are a testament to that hope. A few days after her death, on the famous ‘Free Derry’ corner that defines the Bogside area of the city, someone had spray-painted ‘Not in Our Name. RIP Lyra’, to reflect the revulsion felt about her murder. Further, dissident slogans spray-painted around the city were graffitied over, including one which removed the ‘un’ from the infamous republican phrase ‘unfinished revolution’. One Sinn Féin councillor in the city, Kevin Campbell, noted the kind of sea change that such action had marked by unknown activists, in which dissident republican messaging had been previously untouchable. In Campbell’s words, such action ‘shows they’re not afraid of them’.
Murals related to the conflict, of which Belfast and Derry are famous, are part of that collective memory of the conflict, used most frequently to honour and exonerate paramilitary men killed during the Troubles, and many remain untouched today. And yet, slowly things change, and new heroes are defined. Around the corner from where McKee grew up on the ‘Murder Mile’ in Belfast – a Catholic area once known as the stalking ground for the murderous loyalist paramilitary group, the Shankill Butchers – another mural has emerged in the time since her death. It is one of McKee laughing, posed beside the words she had written to her 14-year-old self, about what it was like to come out in a largely religious society. These words are not those of gun- and bomb-toting men intent on violent political change; rather, they are the words of a young and promising journalist who just wanted more for her generation, and for Northern Ireland:
‘It won’t always be like this. It’s going to get better’.
If you have been affected by any of the themes in this article and need to talk, you can reach Samaritans in the UK and the Republic of Ireland at 116 123, CALM in the UK at 0800 58 58 58, and Lifeline in Northern Ireland at 0808 808 8000.
 Formally, The Belfast Agreement (1998).
 For those familiar with the politics of Northern Ireland, the name of Londonderry/Derry remains contentious. To avoid delving deeply into this debate, and to avoid any potential accusations that the author has taken a political position on the city’s name, this article will ascribe to the BBC’s news style guide, which states that: ‘The city should be given the full name at first reference, but Derry can be used later’. As such, hereafter throughout the remainder of the article, the city shall be called ‘Derry’. For more, see: BBC. “BBC News Style Guide”. 14 August 2020. Accessed 27/10/2020. https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsstyleguide/d
Natasia Kalajdziovski is a senior editor at Strife.
She is a PhD candidate at Middlesex University, where she was awarded a fully funded research studentship to complete her studies. She holds a first-class MA from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and an Honours BA from the Department of History at the University of Toronto. Broadly speaking, her research examines the role and conduct of intelligence practice in counterterrorism in the national security context, using historical case studies as the foundation of her research. Outside of academia, Natasia frequently contributes to publications in the counterterrorism field, and she consults with various organisations as a subject-matter expert in her areas of research expertise. She is also a junior research affiliate with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) and an elected postgraduate member of the Royal Historical Society.