The symbolism of Good Friday in the history of Ireland is unavoidable. This was the weekend 103 years ago when republicans rose against the British in Dublin. And this was the day 21 years ago when the peace settlement in Northern Ireland was agreed.
That Lyra McKee should have died on this day of all days makes the pain harder to bear. She was shot by a “republican volunteer”, presumably one opposed to what became known as the Good Friday Agreement. We have to assume that her killing was not intentional, but using a gun in such a situation of riotous disorder in Derry was such an act of reckless culpability that she might as well have been murdered.
McKee’s death is above all a terrible loss, not just to her family and friends but to the rest of us. She was a young journalist of exceptional talent. No one who has read her letter to her 14-year-old self could deny that. She was in Derry to report on clashes in the streets after the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) searched for guns and explosives. The police said they believed violent republicans were planning attacks during this weekend’s commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising.
Her death was also a warning. It was a warning to those remnants of the violent republican movement who ought to understand that they will never murder their way to a united Ireland. Theirs is the same mentality that killed 29 shoppers in Omagh four months after the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998.
All that did, and all McKee’s killing will do, is alienate domestic and international opinion that might otherwise be sympathetic to the case for a united Ireland. The rhetoric emanating today from Saoradh, a republican organisation, sounds outdated and unconvincing. The group claimed McKee’s killer shot her accidentally while trying to “defend people from the PSNI/RUC”, and went on: “The blame for last night lies squarely at the feet of the British crown forces, who sought to grab headlines and engineered confrontation with the community.”
We will never go back to the days when that kind of rabble-rousing could have a purchase on a significant proportion of the people in Northern Ireland. Even the attempt to taint the PSNI with the sectarian history of the Royal Ulster Constabulary – the RUC, which was renamed in 2001 – will mean little to young people in Northern Ireland today.
McKee’s death was also a warning, however, to those who dismiss concerns about the Irish border as an artificial attempt to make it more difficult for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. While violent republicanism is a dead end, it still needs to be kept in check – potentially a more difficult task if we don’t have the right arrangements.
Those Conservative MPs who opposed the prime minister’s Brexit deal because it included the backstop guarantee of an open border between Northern Ireland and the republic have never satisfactorily explained how border checks could be managed in a way that did not make republican violence worse.
As we mourn McKee’s death, let us learn the right lessons and commit ourselves in her name to a peaceful and tolerant future.