Sarah Kay remembers Lyra McKee on the first anniversary of her death in a piece that featured in Non Curat Lex.
It’s been one year since my friend Lyra McKee was gunned down in Derry. It’s been one year with a couple of people in custody, some outrage here and there, and fortunately, a compilation of all her unpublished work released by her publisher with the consent of her family. It’s been one year today, and it’s a year during which so much happened, that I couldn’t stop thinking, for a second: Lyra should have been there. Lyra would have been on the frontline with NHS workers, defending a welfare state that cares about all and not a few; she would have investigated governmental failures to protect; she would have reached out to us human rights defenders to see what could be done to ensure security and health, and what were our primary concerns for the post-pandemic world. She would have, would have, could have, she could have, all of this potential, wasted away.
This isn’t my grief. It is Northern Irish grief. It is this very form of anger mixed with the powerlessness in which paramilitary recruitment incubates 20 years after the peace process. It is the fury bubbling below the surface of our tired skins that a 29 year old would still be adding her name to the list of those who continued dying after our official statistics ended. She has become one of those she were writing about. Those young lives, all of whom mattered, all of whom had loved ones and futures and maybe an education, a vocation, a calling, all of those beating hearts that had not been defeated by the lack of prospects in our respective neighbourhoods, that could have helped radiate Northern Ireland not just in Ulster, but in Europe, and beyond. Lyra died because someone in the N-IRA went out that day and decided the right to life wasn’t their priority. Most importantly, Lyra died because she was doing her job, and the N-IRA would not stop terrorizing communities.
I don’t care about their apology, but I care about all those messages I have left on my phone. This isn’t a peculiar loss, either. Throughout the world, families, extended ones and close ones, have those empty chairs, those absences, those ghosts, their candles at their windows, because terrorism, conflict, insurgency, cartels, have robbed them of someone that was crucial to their stability. Lyra McKee was a journalist, and she stood up, wrote, researched, interviewed, probed and poked for all of those bodies, the nameless and the interred, the disappeared and the headlines, to figure out why they were not amongst us anymore. Her particular skill, what made her writing so specific and her voice so unique, was that she was capable of entirely removing herself from a story and give the front row seats to those voiceless citizens. She focused outside of the statistics. The new generation – hers, and the ones that came after – that continue to suffer the mental health deterioration due to the conflict, the unspoken suicides, the lost boys of paramilitary machismo, the forgotten girls of religious bigotry. The issue with Northern Ireland, you see, is that every cobblestone hides something underneath it. Every brick probably rings hollow. Not only did we need Lyra, we need more journalists like her. She had spoken with the support of PEN and Amnesty International on the importance of investigative journalism at a time when the political will on both sides was to forget and maybe, down the line, accept reluctant forgiveness. Amnesties were not Lyra’s beat. Lyra wanted accountability, and she wanted them for all.
I wrote about this before, but the way Lyra McKee and I met was because she had heard of me, a girl from the lanes, that had somehow made it out, and had tried to do something that would make the city proud. I don’t know if I had the chance, throughout all those years, to tell her that she was the one being the standard for what Northern Ireland can achieve. She was the role model. She was a powerful voice, a loving caretaker, and a passionate partner to the love of her life, Sara. I would send her photos of wherever my travels would take me, and she would make plans to be there some day. My losses and my frustrations were hers. My wins and my elation were hers, too. This is what friendship means. But there is a strange bond between a human rights lawyer and a journalist: it’s truth. Granted, the two professions butt head often enough that this may sound odd, but truth and justice are two fundamental values that could never be replaced. We talked about our dead, in the middle of the night, or over coffee; we talked about exile, displacement, about parallels between this war and others. She wrote so beautifully about how Northern Ireland could be so much more than what it is. Because it can. And I have to believe it will.
She is not the first person I have lost to this particular war in which I grew up. I am, very much, this war. She is not the first person I have lost to a terror attack. She is not the first journalist to have been killed while performing their job. She is not the first friend whose loss is leaving an empty space where text messages and dinners at Home should be. The question “why” continues to resonate, loud, insistent, a power drill to the skull, every single time. How can someone die in Derry in 2019? How was someone with such a strong activist background absent from the celebrations of the legalisation of same-sex marriage and abortion? We will keep working, speaking, writing, publishing, advocating, and litigating until Northern Ireland sees a future at the end of this very bleak and much too long tunnel.
There are no lessons learned, because senseless death is senseless death. There is going forward. For Northern Ireland. For us all. For Sara. For journalists worldwide.
The mission has never mattered more.
➽ Sarah Kay is a human rights lawyer.