Notebook on the shooting dead of a journalist who was just doing her job
By Bill Heaney
Today I was proud to be a journalist, a person who writes the truth and is unafraid to stand up to the establishment and face down the hubris of people in authority.
A person who is prepared to battle for freedom of the press to report and to defend the right of journalists to report the world as they see it – and make fair comment on it without fear or favour.
A person whose role it is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Someone who believes that news is something someone somewhere wants covered up and all the rest is merely advertising.
I have never felt better about doing the work I do than I did today while watching the coverage of the funeral of Lyra McKee.
Lyra is the journalist who was so cruelly and thoughtlessly gunned down by the New IRA during a riot in Derry on Holy Thursday.
Those of you who watched this service must have been moved by the many tributes that were paid to this brave young woman by friends and family.
Especially the one by Father Martin Magill, who received a standing ovation in St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast when he asked the 600 mourners inside why it took Lyra’s death to unite political parties.
Fr Magill asked: “Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get to this point?”
Ms McKee was shot dead while observing rioting in the Creggan, a deprived area of Derry, founded on the rotten politics of Unionist gerrymandering. The New IRA, who continue to harbour grievances about that, said its members killed her.
Fr Magill’s strong message to the gathered galaxy of the Republic and United Kingdom’s political rivals brought mourners to their fee to applaud.
The priest said that what the people of Northern Ireland needed now was not guns to be put in their hands but to be given jobs to improve their economic circumstances and self-esteem.
Few people would disagree with that, especially when they see so much poverty and deprivation continuing to prevail in Derry 20 years after the Good Friday agreement.
There was enthusiastic approval inside and outside the cathedral – and amongst millions who watched on television – of the fact that the politicians had at last been put to shame so publicly, so eloquently and so disapprovingly.
Prime Minister Theresa May, President of Ireland Michael D Higgins, Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Leo Varadakar and other politicians were at the service.
I was initially disappointed that Archbishop Eamonn Martin, the Catholic primate of all Ireland, was not present, realising immediately this could be interpreted as a snub by the Church to the gay community and those who support them.
After all, Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, was well to the fore in what could only be interpreted as a supportive gesture from them.
And the DUP, like the conservative Catholic Church, are publicly opposed to LGBT people, condemn their conduct and refuse to support or sanction gay marriage.
A friend told mourners at her funeral that Ms McKee revealed her plans to propose to her partner, Sara Canning, just hours before she was murdered.
Stephen Lusty, whose eulogy made the congregation cry one minute and laugh the next, said she showed him pictures of the engagement ring.
“She showed me pictures of the ring she had bought for Sara and told me of the fabulous plans she had of her proposal in May,” said Mr Lusty.
“She made me put a date in my diary for the wedding in Donegal in 2022 [gay marriage is still illegal in the North of Ireland] and gave me strict instructions to wear my kilt, which she always wanted to borrow, adorn it with some Harry Potter stuff, and to find or re-find my own version of Sara.”
Ms McKee’s sister, Nicola Corner, told mourners: “In the words of Lyra herself, we must change our own world, one piece at a time. Now let’s get to work.”
Lyra’s commitment to the truth was absolute, her sibling said.
Many friends of the journalist wore Harry Potter-themed T-shirts, scarves and badges to the ecumenical service in the Church of Ireland cathedral. Ms McKee was an avid fan of the series.
Dean Stephen Forde said: “Lyra was a person who broke down barriers and reached across boundaries, this was her hallmark in life, this is her legacy in death.
“As a journalist, she pursued truth wherever it took her, never content with the sullen silence of unanswered questions.”
He added: “She was a child of the Good Friday agreement. She was a primary school pupil in north Belfast when the agreement was signed.
“She grew up to champion its hope for a society that was free from the prejudices of the past.”
Three people have been arrested over her murder, and all have been released without charge.
Father Joe Gormley, who gave Lyra the Last Rites, said: “But people are also reflecting and they know that we are faced with a choice in life,” he said. “We either go back to the dark days or move forward.”
He said he was willing to “sit down and talk” to those responsible.
Ms McKee had written for publications including Private Eye, the Atlantic, Mosaic Science and Mediagazer.
Lyra was said to be “like a dog at a bone” when people in power tried to put her off pursuing a story. She was persistent in asking her questions.
She had also signed a two-book deal with the publisher Faber and Faber, with her forthcoming book The Lost Boys due out in 2020.
Fellow members of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) formed a guard of honour at the cathedral.
The union described Ms McKee as “one of the most promising journalists” in Northern Ireland.
There were also gatherings at Guildhall Square in Derry and Buchanan Street in Glasgow for those who could not attend her funeral.
Journalism is a trade, not a profession. It is now an honourable profession which has at last been recognised by the good work of reporters and writers such as Lyra McKee.
We are not the yellow press or lying scum – at least not all of us are – which is how some people would have the public perceive us.
In a world full of secrecy and spin, obfuscation cover-ups and fake news, such as we are in at the moment, we are the seekers out of truth.
Truth such as the revelations coming out about graft and corruption which has been happening for too long under our noses here in Dumbarton.
Some council members and officials here are anxious that nothing of this or any of the other areas in which the Council has made so many costly mistakes and done so many embarrassing U-turns.
They are so determined to avoid scrutiny and investigation, that they have banned and boycotted the oldest and most experienced journalist covering their affairs.
They have made accusations that I interrupted a council meeting, which I did not, and that I spoke harshly to an official who tried to stop me making an entirely reasonable request to the Provost. Which I did and then apologised immediately.
The Council want me to register with IPSO, a quango to which they can complain about me if ever I get my facts wrong, which I am not obliged in law to do.
I absolutely refuse to do this. I refuse to be gagged by public servants who appear not to know what that designation means, which is that they are there to serve the public.
As for the SNP, I notice that their Westminster leader Ian Blacklaw MP was at Lyra McKee’s funeral applauding enthusiastically at the message which was that politicians should give themselves a shake and do what the electorate wants, not what they want for themselves.
Does he know what his SNP colleagues are up to in West Dunbartonshire? Does Nicola Sturgeon know and does she approve of it?
Do they know they are pressing ahead, along with Scottish Enterprise, an arm of Scotland’s SNP government, with their plans to turn Loch Lomondside into a theme park?
Do they know this is despite the fact that 38,000 people have signed a petition against this? Is this what politicians call listening to the public?
If that is the case then it’s a shameless lie.
Do they know that what the public here wants is the same as the people in Derry which is to live in a safe community with jobs and good health services?
Do they know that the men in the black balaclavas with guns and knives are already at the door here?
Are our politicians not concerned about the armed raid on the pub in Old Kilpatrick or the man who was knocked off his bicycle and knifed in Clydebank in the past few weeks?
It’s time the electorate were told why it is so important that at election time they should vote for people who are in politics for the public good and not in it for themselves.
That time is with us now.
Father Martin Magill speaking at the funeral in Belfast of Lyra McKee. Sky News pictures