Séamus Dooley is Irish secretary of the National Union of Journalists (United Kingdom and Ireland).
The murder of Lyra McKee in Derry, Northern Ireland, on Thursday night has cast a long shadow.
Though she was only 29, McKee was a widely respected journalist who had just signed a two-book deal with acclaimed publisher Faber & Faber. She was also a passionate campaigner for LGBT rights in Northern Ireland, penning a 2014 letter to her teenage self about being gay that went viral and was the basis of a short film.
A pioneering user of social media to tell stories about her community, McKee represented the new, modern face of Northern Ireland. She was a prophetic voice who rose above tribal differences and sought to promote a more inclusive society, free of sectarianism, bigotry and intolerance.
But this light was extinguished when she was shot dead while reporting on a riot in the Creggan neighborhood in Derry.
The riot began after the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) conducted a number of raids in the area as part of an investigation into the activities of the so-called New IRA. As a freelancer, McKee was on hand to witness the gas-bombing attack on security forces and was standing by a police Land Rover when she was struck by a bullet. She was rushed to the hospital but died of her wounds.
Two teenagers were arrested in connection with the shooting, and then subsequently released without charges. On Monday, the PSNI announced that more than 140 people have contacted police in Derry seeking to pass on information about the murder after a “massive” response. The New IRA has since reportedly admitted responsibility for McKee’s killing.
The killing of a journalist in the line of duty is both horrific and senseless. The National Union of Journalists has been at the forefront of organizing vigils throughout Northern Ireland, but there has also been a remarkable community response — from sister trade unions, the LGBT community and even political leaders.
On Good Friday, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster paid her first visit to the Creggan, a nationalist enclave. Foster and the leaders of five other parties also issued a joint statement condemning the killing, an unusual occurrence at any time but especially significant in the fraught political atmosphere stemming from Brexit. Faced with tragedy, Northern Ireland’s political parties were able to come together, united in condemnation and mourning the loss of a talented writer.
If McKee were alive to witness this response, she probably would have responded by asking, “Did you have to wait until someone was killed?”
But her tragic death highlights a sobering reality: Northern Ireland is inhospitable for journalists. McKee is not the first Northern Irish journalist to face inordinate danger while reporting — and, unless things change, she might not be the last.
On Sept. 28, 2001, my National Union of Journalists colleague Martin O’Hagan was gunned down in front of his wife, Marie, as he walked home from a local pub. O’Hagan was a dogged reporter who specialized in crime and had investigated links between loyalist paramilitary groups and criminal gangs in Belfast. His murder remains unsolved despite well-publicized threats leading up to the shooting, and the specter of police collusion — or at least apathy — hangs over the case. Other journalists have since faced death threats for their work, often from paramilitary groups.
Then there is undue pressure from authorities. Currently, two other investigative journalists — Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey — are on police bail after their work related to the ground-breaking documentary, “No Stone Unturned.” Directed by Alex Gibney, the film hinted that police collusion had a role to play in the aftermath of the 1994 Loughinisland massacre, in which six people were murdered while watching the World Cup at a local pub. Instead of celebrating Birney and McCaffrey’s work, about 100 officers raided their homes, confiscated their belongings and arrested the pair on suspicion of stealing an unredacted internal police report.
More than 17 years after O’Hagan’s killing and less than a year after Birney and McCaffrey’s arrest, McKee’s death spotlights the work that still needs to be done to promote and safeguard independent journalism in Northern Ireland. Authorities need to respect journalists’ sources of information and support their aim of uncovering the truth whenever possible. The Official Secrets Act, which is used to suppress information, must be repealed and a new culture of openness developed in the PSNI. And if journalists face violence or harassment, their cases must be handled effectively and efficiently by authorities — even when they conjure uncomfortable questions.
They say the darkest day is just before the dawn. Those who hold positions of power must work together to ensure that McKee’s murder marks the beginning, not of a fresh round of violence but a new dawn, built on the inclusiveness, equality and spirit of free expression she cherished. That is the most fitting way to honor her memory.