Police in Northern Ireland blamed the fatal shooting of a young journalist during rioting Thursday night in the city of Londonderry on the “New IRA,” a dissident paramilitary group that rejects the Good Friday peace agreement between the British and Irish governments. It brought a political solution to long-running violence between Catholic and Protestant communities that claimed more than 3,700 lives.
Lyra McKee, 29, was wounded by shots fired toward police amid unrest that included dozens of Molotov cocktails and two hijacked cars. She died on the way to the hospital early Friday. Londonderry police are treating the incident as a “terrorist” act
“I was standing beside this young woman when she fell beside a police Land Rover tonight in Creggan #Derry. I called an ambulance for her but police put her in the back of their vehicle and rushed her to hospital where she died,” Leona O’Neill, a journalist for The Belfast Telegraph, and eyewitness, tweeted. “Sick to my stomach tonight.”
McKee was an editor and reporter for Mediagazer, a California-based publication that writes about the media industry. She had also written for The Atlantic and BuzzFeed News. She recently signed a contract to write two books and had risen to prominence in 2014 with a blog post describing the struggle of growing up gay in Northern Ireland.
“McKee’s passion is to dig into topics that others don’t care about,” Forbes magazine wrote in 2016 as it named her one of its “30 under 30” notable media figures.
Her book “The Lost Boys,” stories of disappearances during the decades of violence in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles,” was due to be published next year, according to McKee’s British literary representatives, agency Janklow & Nesbit.
British Prime Minister Theresa May called McKee’s death “shocking and senseless” and Ireland’s leader Leo Varadkar, addressing her killing, said “we cannot allow those who want propagate violence, fear and hate to drag us back to the past.”
A murder investigation has been launched.
At the time of her death, McKee was covering violence that had broken out in the Creggan area of Londonderry, also known as Derry, as police raided houses and searched for weapons ahead of weekend events marking the 1916 Easter Rising.
The botched, but historically significant, rebellion against British rule is one of the most important dates in modern Irish history because although the uprising failed – more than 450 people were killed and 16 of the revolt’s leaders were executed – it led to a series of events that ultimately gave Ireland its independence in 1922.
1916 Easter Rising: What is it, and why is it important to Ireland?
Police in Northern Ireland were conducting the raids in Derry out of concern “New IRA” dissidents could be planning attacks timed for the commemorations. They take place each year in Northern Ireland and Ireland during Easter Week.
Republican dissidents in Northern Ireland have traditionally sought an end to British rule and want to re-unite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.
O’Neill, the journalist who witnessed McKee’s death, said a gunman appeared to fire indiscriminately toward police vehicles as McKee stood on the street with residents, including teenagers and younger children, who had come out of their homes on a crowded housing complex in Creggan to observe the riots.
Only hours before her death McKee tweeted a photo of the riot.
She captioned it with: “Derry tonight. Absolute madness.”
Dissident activity by the “New IRA,” whose members are predominantly Catholic, while British loyalists are majority Protestant, has been increasing in recent months as Britain has struggled to ratify a divorce agreement – Brexit – with the European Union.
The stumbling block for British lawmakers is largely related to fears Brexit could damage Northern Ireland’s fragile 1998 peace deal because it could lead to a return of the hard border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and Ireland (part of the EU).
May and the EU have devised an insurance policy, known as the “backstop,” designed to prevent this but it has so far failed to appease concerned British lawmakers.
The issue caught the attention of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she visited Derry on Thursday. She said if Britain leaves the EU in a way that jeopardizes the Good Friday accords it will also affect Britain’s ability to negotiate a post-EU trade deal with the United States. “That’s just not on the cards if there’s any harm done,” she said.
McKee’s death follows swiftly on the heels of a report this week from Reporters Without Borders, whose World Press Freedom Index revealed that the number of countries around the world where journalists can work safely is declining. McKee is the 7th journalist murdered while doing their job in 2019, and the first in the UK.
The UK ranked 33rd on the Paris-based watchdog’s press-freedom index. The U.S. came in at 48th. The best-performing countries were in Scandinavia.
Seamus Dooley, Irish secretary of the National Union of Journalists, described McKee as “one of the most promising journalists” in Northern Ireland. He said he was shocked by the murder of a journalist “of courage, style and integrity.”