The death of Lyra McKee was a needless tragedy inflicted on a young woman by thoughtless stooges. It was an act that devastated her life partner, her family, and her friends and colleagues in the world of journalism.
There is no room for equivocation when commenting on this event. Yet this killing was not wrong only because a young, talented and engaging 29-year-old lost her life—though it was certainly all of that. It was not wrong only because of the undisciplined firing of live ammunition in a built-up area, reckless as that undoubtedly was. It was also wrong because it involved the aimless, ill-conceived and counter-productive use of physical force.
And before some wiseacre challenges this writer by saying that the same may have been said about the Provisional IRA, let me make two basic points. In the first instance, there is no comparison between the situation today and the scale and circumstances that gave rise to the Provisionals. More important, though, is the fact that events must be considered strictly on their merits, albeit in context. It is in the light of contemporary situations and circumstances that events in Derry must be considered.
Claiming that those who opened fire were defending the Creggan is simply being disingenuous. To credibly protect a community, it goes without saying that there must exist a genuine and serious threat to the people of the area. In contrast to events during 1969, when the RUC used lethal force to kill and injure people in the Bogside, Belfast and elsewhere in the Six Counties, no such threat was evident on that April evening in 2019. Responding to house searches is not defending, and firing wildly with a pistol in the direction of an armoured vehicle was at best bravado and in this case inexcusable.
It must be pointed out, however, that the PSNI also have questions to answer. What on earth did they think they were doing by aggressively carrying out house searches at 9 p.m. on the Thursday before Easter? While no-one could have predicted the actual outcome, surely they must have known that there was the real risk of a violent confrontation when so many people were out and about on a mild spring evening, and in a republican area.
Let’s be clear: this is not to imply that the PSNI were responsible for Lyra McKee’s death. Nevertheless their decision to carry out searches at that time and place must be carefully scrutinised and weighed in the light of the subsequent tragedy.
However, when analysing existing material conditions, one overriding consideration is crystal-clear. To paraphrase an expert in the subject, the Derry shooters have no water in which to swim. Whatever wider assessments may be made of the Provisionals, it is undeniable that they received very considerable support from within the North’s nationalist community. By no stretch of the imagination can any similar claim be made today for the tiny, isolated groups promoting armed conflict in the Six Counties. That fact alone condemns them to certain and total failure. In the process, however, they serve only to damage the efforts of those working to build a workers’ republic in Ireland.
By any reckoning, the political entity that is Northern Ireland is in disarray. Political institutions have not functioned for more than two years. The leading pro-union party, the DUP, has not only lost the confidence of powerful elements within unionism but has also overplayed its hand with the Conservatives in London. All the while, the very existence of the six-county state is in doubt.
Meanwhile the southern 26-county state is disguising its failure to address the needs of its working-class majority by promoting its relationship with the neo-liberal EU while loudly lamenting the Brexit process. This is the state with 10,000 homeless people and a two-tier health service, where money buys access to life-saving treatment. Yet at the same time its government sees fit to award private companies a lucrative contract worth €373 million over fifteen years to operate toll systems on the country’s busiest motorway.*
Overcoming the two failed Irish states requires the building of a broadly based progressive mass movement of working people. Signs that such a development is possible have been evident in several well-supported campaigns over recent years in the 26 Counties. Encouragingly, many disparate republican groups and individuals have overcome their reluctance to change old and redundant tactics and have engaged in this process.
Unfortunately, all too often these initiatives to unite on a working-class agenda have been ridiculed and obstructed by those responsible for the death of Lyra McKee. Ironically, while they have sought to cause division and dissension within the ranks of left republicanism, they have now succeeded in uniting the forces of the establishment on a sterile security programme. Hardly a surprise, therefore, that so many suspect the presence of a sinister hand monitoring and manipulating these organisations.
But irrespective of the presence of provocateurs, these groups are objectively counter-revolutionary. Their presence and their actions are more than a mere distraction: they cause confusion by peddling a false promise that they can deliver on a republican objective. Their actions give comfort to the enemies of a workers’ republic as they distort and mangle the socialist message. Their reckless incompetence allows for the demonising of genuine revolutionaries. Common sense, not to mention common decency, dictates that they should vacate the stage.
Regrettably, it is doubtful if any of these arguments will have any positive effect on the organisations involved. If logic or political understanding were their strong point they wouldn’t be in the cul de sac they now occupy.
It is important, however, that the counter-productive actions of these groups are not allowed to facilitate a reactionary agenda. The demand for an all-Ireland workers’ republic is as valid as it ever was. The building of a mass movement among the working class to do this remains not only legitimate but also essential. Only through a mass movement of the Irish working class will we definitively sideline what Connolly derisively described as the “physical force party.” Only through such a movement can we transform society in the two failed states into a republic that serves the needs of working people.
We must continue, therefore, to speak the facts objectively, overlook the hyperbole, and continue to build for the future.
*Barry O’Halloran, “Abtran and Vinci win €373m contract to operate M50 tolls,” Irish Times, 18 April 2019.
Tommy McKearney is a former IRA hunger striker. He edits Fourthwrite magazine and is a union organiser