In a place where journalists' freedom is under threat, Lyra McKee was a fearless voice of truth

Amnesty and Reporters Without Borders have both highlighted the risk to journalists in Northern Ireland. After McKee's death, it's time politicians and press across the UK took the lives of its people seriously

April 24, 2019
A message of condolence for 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee which has been graffittied on to the Free Derry Corner. Photo: PA
A message of condolence for 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee which has been graffittied on to the Free Derry Corner. Photo: PA

“We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace,” Lyra McKee writes in her staggering ‘Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies’, a piece on Northern Ireland’s escalating suicide rate, where more have taken their own lives in the 16 years following the Troubles than died during them. “The spoils just never seemed to reach us.”

Authorities have confirmed that McKee’s death is being treated as a terrorist act by a “violent dissident republican” and a full murder investigation will soon follow. She is the first journalist in the UK since the 2001 death of Martin O’Hagan in Lurgan, Armagh to be murdered in the line of duty. That news of her death came on Good Friday, a day known for instilling peace in a conflicted Northern Ireland, is particularly painful.

At 29-years-old, McKee had developed work that fervently empowers and elevates the most marginalised, a voice that gave those who need it answers and respite. In 2014, her stunning open letter to herself about growing up gay in Belfast and her fraught journey to self-acceptance went viral, and was made into a short film.

McKee represents the dynamism of a youth born from the Good Friday Agreement, a relentless zeal to work on the imperfect peace it gave us.

She wrote of mental health in a society that hush-hushes such issues, of sex workers rights with the late activist Laura Lee, the fight for Northern Ireland’s only rape crisis centre, and on the need for more inclusive LGBTQ education. She regularly reached out to fellow female journalists to extend solidarity when they covered issues of gender, sexuality, and local politics.

Over the weekend, a multitude of stories about her kindness, care, and pursuit of the truth circulated on Twitter.

Northern Ireland has a serious ‘brain drain’ problem: its youth emigrate for better job opportunities and more progressive societies; its LGBTQ+ people leave to evade insidious stigma and unjust laws.

McKee chose to stay and shine a light on its issues, make her home with her partner in what she called “legendDerry,” and speak fearlessly about her own identity on the island she called “a beautiful tragedy.”

The threat to journalists in a post-conflict society, the abuses they must navigate and threats to press freedom they rail against are also ever-clear in Northern Ireland. Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey remain on bail for refusing to reveal sources to police for their searing documentary on the Loughinisland murders, paramilitaries have threatened the lives of local reporters, and female journalists particularly face rampant misogynistic threats for doing their jobs.

The Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index ranks the UK as number 33. Despite rising seven places from last year’s barometer, it remains one of the worst-ranked western European countries—in part due to the “heavy-handed approach” to press in the name of “national security.”

“The sinister arrest of journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey—facing the prospect of serious charges simply for their vital work in uncovering police collusion in the Loughinisland massacre in Northern Ireland—leaves us in no doubt that press freedom in the UK remains at risk,” said Director of Amnesty International UK Kate Allen. (The police have defended their handling of the case.)

We cannot allow Lyra McKee’s preventable death to be treated as collateral damage. Derry is in dire straits right now: young people are being recruited by paramilitaries—two teenagers, aged 18 and 19, were held and have since been released over McKee’s death, young people she would have had the utmost compassion for—and the riots last week mark the peak of recent activity.

But it’s also a place thirsting for progression and change. The rallying cry in these last few days has been ‘Not in my name’ and McKee’s friends have vehemently condemned the Saoradh statement taking responsibility for her death, protesting outside the dissident group’s headquarters by putting red handprints on the walls of the building and on local murals. Over 140 people have contacted detectives through an online portal to assist investigations.


The backpedalling to dark days before the peace process by a minority must be acknowledged both in Northern Ireland and in Westminster as Derry people demand peace and support. Yet, Stormont sits empty. Northern Irish people are fighting Brexit inadequacies and the loss of their EU rights.

Before McKee’s death, international papers and often the London press would run without these stories. McKee herself described Northern Ireland as a “piece of rock that many on mainland UK seem to forget exists.”

The British press would do good to pore over McKee’s work and that of her peers, to consider the complexity of working as a journalist in a post-conflict landscape and to take care to diligently examine the fraught emotions and complexities of Northern Irish society.

Dredging storylines and frenzy from paramilitaries, orchestrated or not, is galling, as is sensationalising a landscape that has real, tangible problems that desperately need addressing by considerate media and present politicians. Responsible coverage of the ongoing inquiry, as well as the fallout from the NIRA statement, is paramount. This is a time to take Northern Ireland and the lives of its people seriously.

Peace is an amorphous thing; stop it moving and it decays. Lyra McKee’s compassionate voice pushed Northern Ireland forward, and she was murdered by those who wish to pull us back.

2019—almost 100 years on from Irish partition, 21 years since the Good Friday Agreement—should have been McKee’s year. “It gets better for those of us who live long enough to see it get better,” McKee says in her TedX talk.

She made it better for people. For her, we must reject an uncertain future marred with senseless death and bring forth her vibrant message of hope—from one ceasefire baby to another.