Colette Browne: ‘If politicians in the North want to pay proper tribute to Lyra, they must work together – and restore hope’


Colette Browne: ‘If politicians in the North want to pay proper tribute to Lyra, they must work together – and restore hope’

Murdered journalist Lyra McKee. Photo: PSNI/PA
Murdered journalist Lyra McKee. Photo: PSNI/PA

Lyra McKee, who will be laid to rest in Belfast today, represented the best of Northern Ireland – talented, generous, empathetic and self-assured. Aged just 29, she was on her way to huge success in journalism, an industry notoriously difficult for young people to break into.

Named as one of the ’30 under 30′ by ‘Forbes’ magazine in 2016, she was already a published author, with ‘Angels With Blue Faces’, and had recently been awarded a two-book deal with Faber & Faber.

McKee had achieved success on her own terms, writing about subjects she cared deeply about and which are routinely overlooked in our celebrity-obsessed popular culture – the plight of those growing up LGBT in Northern Ireland, marginalised communities in the region and the prevalence of suicide in the six counties.

Please log in or register with for free access to this article.

Log In

window.gigyaIntegration = window.gigyaIntegration || {};
gigyaIntegration.command = gigyaIntegration.command || ;
gigyaIntegration.command.push(function() {
onLogin: function(e) {
$(‘#datawall-sign-in’).click(function(e) {
signupSource: ‘opinion’
$(‘#datawall-sign-up’).click(function(e) {
signupSource: ‘opinion’

Her murder, therefore, is not just a personal tragedy for her family and friends, but represents a devastating loss for public life on this island. We have lost her voice, her insight, her activism and decades of her work.

While the shooter and the New IRA are responsible for her murder, there are others whose action, and inaction, helped to create an environment in which violence returned to the streets of Derry last week.

“We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us,” wrote McKee in 2016, of a generation which had been promised so much, but received so little.

The bullets and bombs may have stopped in Northern Ireland with the Good Friday Agreement, but politics has never evolved beyond its sectarian roots in the 21 years since the agreement was signed.

The result has been stasis on social issues, an underperforming and heavily subsidised economy, labour market participation well below the UK average and child poverty levels that are much higher than those on the mainland.

Consequently, there was something unsettling about listening to DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill pay tribute to McKee – without ever acknowledging the criticism of them implicit in much of her work.

It’s hard to imagine a political party more at odds with what McKee stood for than the DUP, which is dogmatic, insular and panders to homophobia.

McKee first came to prominence in 2014, when she wrote a letter to her 14-year-old self about the trauma she endured growing up gay in Belfast.

“Life is so hard right now. Every day, you wake up wondering who else will find out your secret and hate you,” she wrote, before reassuring the reader “life will not only get easier, it will get much better”.

McKee wrote the piece in response to a Northern Irish pastor James McConnell stating “two lesbians living together are not a family. They are sexual perverts playing pretend”. She said hateful remarks like that had made “14-year-old me feel like I was better off dead, rather than deal with the shame of being gay”.

When the DUP was accused of being replete with homophobes by the UK press in 2017, after it entered a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Tories, Ms Foster derided that characterisation as “hyperbole” and “complete and utter nonsense”.

This begs a question. What terminology would Ms Foster prefer to use to describe comments by DUP members which labelled homosexual relationships as “immoral, offensive and obnoxious” or “an abomination”? Latterly, the DUP has unilaterally blocked the introduction of same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland, despite the measure having had majority support within the now defunct Assembly.

A political party which does not censure politicians who make bigoted remarks about a minority community, but instead provides a platform where those comments can be amplified, just breeds more bigotry.

The DUP, which opposed the Good Friday Agreement and recently suggested it was “not sacrosanct” and could be manipulated for the purposes of achieving Brexit, demonstrably does not care about the interests of the majority population in Northern Ireland either.

Numerous studies have concluded Northern Ireland would be the hardest hit region in the UK if Brexit were to happen, with one report estimating a cost of €5.7bn over 15 years – a fact the DUP doesn’t care a jot about.

Already the economic sick man of the UK, Brexit has the potential to decimate businesses and lead to a surge of unemployment in Northern Ireland.

This would not just be a catastrophe for the economy, but would strengthen the hands of those dissident voices trying to convince young people in deprived areas like Creggan to return to a campaign of violence.

Sinn Féin too should now also enter a period of self-reflection, examine some of the social problems that McKee sought to highlight and query its responsibility for its endemic nature.

Since devolution, the Northern Ireland Assembly has had responsibility for areas like health and social services, education, employment and skills, agriculture and housing. Yet Northern Ireland consistently trails behind other regions when performance in these areas is tracked.

For instance, according to a report from the Nevin Economic Research Institute, in 2015 16.3pc of 16 to 64-year-olds in Northern Ireland had no level one national vocational qualifications – meaning fewer than five GCSEs. This compares to a UK average of 8.8pc and a figure of 5.5pc in the south-west.

When it comes to agriculture, in England more than one-quarter of farms have a business income in excess of £50,000 (€57,700), but the figure for Northern Ireland is just 14pc. Meanwhile, the average farm income in the UK was £35,000 in 2015, but in Northern Ireland just £25,000.

The professional and scientific sectors also fare badly, with wages in Northern Ireland 25pc lower than the UK.

These are issues that can’t just reflexively be blamed on Westminster. Local politicians, who are supposed to oversee these sectors, need to face up to their own responsibilities to their community.

The failure to restore power sharing for more than two years, as both the DUP and Sinn Féin engage in bickering and petty sniping, has exacerbated these societal issues. The political vacuum has also created a space in which dissidents have been allowed to gain a firmer foothold.

Lyra McKee was born in an era of hope for Northern Ireland – hope for peace and prosperity. Her brutal killing is a stark reminder of what is at stake if that hope is extinguished. If politicians truly want to pay tribute to her legacy, then they will put their differences aside and work together to rekindle and restore that hope across Northern Ireland.

Irish Independent


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here