This week I had a brief conversation with a friend of mine from Belfast, who now lives in the United States. We discussed, among other things, the so-called, ‘New’ Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its murder of Irish journalist, Lyra McKee, 29 years old, on Thursday, April 18. Both of us expressed ‘fear and loathing’, and just outright outrage about the New IRA and its renewed violence. After all, the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ for peace in Northern Ireland was signed almost exactly twenty-one years ago, finally ending ‘The Troubles’, which cost nearly 3,500 lives.
Most believed, perhaps naively, including myself, that such extra-judicial killings were relics of the past and behind us. The Northern Irish murders ended, or so we thought, with the ‘peace accords’ at Stormont Palace and House of Commons in 1998. Even so, observers of the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ knew IRA ‘hardliners’ remained after the peace deal had been signed. Those who could not accept peace in Northern Ireland and those who would not stop the violence until a utopic vision for a ‘unified Ireland’ was achieved.
The tumultuous years of the ‘Troubles’ lasted in Northern Ireland from the 1960s until 1998, but historically speaking, the violence between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants has deep roots in the sectarian divide of Irish history to the 17th Century ‘Plantation Era’. The early years of the conflict between native Catholics against the settler Protestant British and Scottish ‘planter class’ resulted in the Confederate Wars (1641-1653) and the Williamite War (1689-1691).
Fast forward to 1916 and the ‘Easter Rising’ in Dublin, Ireland, where a concerted effort was undertaken to win Irish independence from Great Britain and establish the Irish Republic, again a time period almost exactly 103 years from the present. It was led by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers, and the Irish Citizen Army when the British were heavily engaged in fighting World War I. For many reasons, this historical period was instrumental in Irish history when Sinn Féin garnered a majority of Irish votes in 1918 and later would evolve into the political arm of the IRA.
From the 1960s to 1990s, the ‘Troubles’ were a period of convoluted killings between Catholic-Republican paramilitaries and Protestant Ulster-Loyalist paramilitaries, as well as the IRA against the British military and RUC, a time of reprisals and counter-reprisals, resulting in assassinations, car bombings, civilian casualties, death threats, disappearances, hunger strikes, petrol bombs, political-jockeying for power, political murals, prison sentences, sectarian community-divisions, and continual terrorism.
Both Unionists and Republicans have united against dissident ‘New’ IRA paramilitaries because of the murder of the journalist, Lyra McKee in Londonderry during Easter Week. After twenty-one years of relative peace, their willingness to dialogue is welcome and signifying we are undeniably in a new era of non-violent understanding where sectarian violence has no place in this ‘new’ Northern Ireland. Talks about power-sharing between Sinn Féin and the DUP have been revived since the breakdown of such discussions in 2017.
A statement by the ‘New’ IRA’s political party Saoradh, claimed: “Tragically a young journalist, Lyra McKee, was killed accidentally”—was not good enough to the Northern Irish majority who supported the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It was, in effect, beside the point.
After all, it was in the city of Londonderry where the infamous ‘Blood Sunday’ incidents happened some forty-seven years beforehand on January 30th, 1972. It revolved around the British Army shooting at forty-eight unarmed Irish-Catholic marchers who were protesting political internment. And then on that day, thirteen of them were killed straight away.
The present-day trials against ex-British soldiers and ex-Northern Irish police for the Bloody Sunday shootings and other security-forces killings have has tested the resolve and limitations of judicial courts in Northern Ireland. Questions are raised whether or not such ex-British soldiers and police should be charged at all with crimes of murder and attempted-murder such as ‘Soldier F’. Some 200 ex-soldiers and ex-policemen are said to be under investigation. Prior to the journalist’s slaying, the Police Service of Northern Ireland conducted a raid on the Creggan Estate searching for explosives and weapons as preventative measures against terrorism during this past Easter weekend.
What ensued was a political riot. Its original intent evolving from a Saoradh demonstration commemorating the Easter Rising of 1916. To protest the police raid, dissident Republican militants set two cars ablaze with Molotov cocktails and began firing live rounds in the direction of police and gathered crowds. During the melee, Lyra McKee, was gunned down by some masked gunman among the New IRA paramilitary-rioters.
Under such circumstances, it is unclear how New IRA paramilitaries could defend Lyra McKee’s homicide as accidental because of their murderous intent against the Northern Irish police.
This so-called ‘New’ IRA was formed from those Republican paramilitaries who did not believe in the Northern Irish peace process along with young, impoverished, and unemployed youth who were born after the Good Friday Agreement and raised with sectarian beliefs. The PSNI believe the New IRA may have several hundred members. While the political situation in Northern Ireland has been exacerbated since 2016 from a potential BREXIT failure and the threat of ‘borders’ and ‘police checks’ returning to Northern Ireland.
Fortunately, the majority of former Provisional Republicans, and Sinn Féin politicians, do not support the New IRA nor the Saoradh, and their unrealistic goals for unification of Northern Ireland with the rest of the island.
On Wednesday, April 24, McKee’s funeral was well-attended by important British and Irish politicians, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, the Irish President, Michael Higgins, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, and Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney. All the Northern Irish political parties were equally represented.
McKee was survived by her mother, two brothers, and three sisters. She was described as an LGBT activist and also survived by her partner Sara Canning. The service was at the Protestant St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, even though McKee was from a Catholic family. Her family wished her funeral to be well-attended by the entire community.
Her family described Lyra as a woman with a “warm and innocent heart” and who was a “great listener”; and who was also “smart” and “strong-minded”; and who believed in “inclusivity, justice, and truth”.
We can only hope McKee’s death will not be in vain. We can only hope the Good Friday Agreement remains in place and the political parties believe again in the peace process and not a return to violence.
As the Irish Nobel Laureate, novelist, playwright, and poet, Samuel Beckett, once declared: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
While the good people of Northern Ireland cannot afford to fail any longer and they know it.
JP Linstroth, D Phil is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil and former Senior Researcher at PRIO. He has also written about Basque and Northern Irish terrorism and was active in the Basque peace process.
His first book is: Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland(2015).