The person who fired the shot in the Creggan on Thursday evening was a vicious, morally-vacant, politically-vacuous, brain-dead moron.
He pulled on a balaclava, knelt and fired. It was dark. He couldn’t see, let alone know where that bullet would stop. He fired in the general direction of where he thought the police might be.
If, along the line of fire, the speeding bullet hit someone else, anyone else in fact, then so be it. Man, woman, mother pushing a pram, a teenager just walking along, a shop assistant on the way home, a taxi-driver trying to get a fare to safety, an ambulance driver, a paramedic, a journalist. The shooter didn’t give a damn.
Any ‘accidental’ death was justified by his primary task: the killing of a police officer.
But nobody ‘accidentally’ kneels and fires a gun. You don’t accidentally acquire a gun. You’re not accidentally trained to use a gun. You don’t accidentally load it. You don’t accidentally aim it. You don’t accidentally squeeze the trigger. All of those actions are deliberate and calculated. Killing was all that mattered when that bullet began its journey. Who it killed was clearly a matter of calculated risk for the shooter; and for the moronic organisation which ‘sanctioned’ the killing.
That bullet killed Lyra McKee.
I didn’t know Lyra particularly well, but we had chatted and been on a few discussion panels together. She had called me out of the blue a few years earlier — she was probably about 23 or so —to say she was planning a book on the murder of UUP MP Robert Bradford and wondered if I could give her a few steers and some contact numbers of people who knew him or worked with him.
I was happy to help, although I don’t think I was really that much use to her.
A couple of weeks later a journalist friend mentioned her name and asked if I had met her. His assessment is worth recalling: “She’s like a dog with a bone, Alex. She is fearless. Doesn’t take no for an answer. She’ll go far in this business.”
The first time I met her was on a panel. We chatted and she told me a little about her background. She also told me that she was nervous about being on the same panel as someone like me, who was so experienced.
I gave her the advice I give to all young people in those circumstances: ‘Don’t worry about the nerves. I still get them and I’ve being doing this for over thirty years. You don’t have to be word-perfect, or pitch-perfect. All that matters is that the audience is certain they are hearing the authentic you. If people have bothered to come and see you then they deserve to see the real you.’
I think the one thing everyone who had come across Lyra in the last few years would agree on is this: she was authentic. What you saw and heard was the real Lyra. Real, fearless and relentlessly friendly.
Over the years I have talked to many young journalists and bloggers who have begun their careers after 1998.
I often told them that it was very difficult, usually impossible, to set aside the pain when someone close to you was killed by a terrorist. It does colour all subsequent thoughts, commentary and writing. I was never sure they fully understood. Many of them will now know what that pain is like. Lyra is one of their generation; one of their own.
This is no longer something they read about in books and old newspapers; no longer something they hear about from my generation. They knew Lyra. They drank with her. They shared her passions and feisty discussions. The terrorism that killed her is now part of their lives because it has robbed them of someone who mattered to them.
It will change them. Life will never ever be quite the same for them. That’s what terrorism does.
There’s a tendency at moments like this to say that a particular death will change things; that a particular death will not be in vain. Try telling that to the families and friends of the thousands of others who have died here since the 1960s.
What might have been cuts no ice in the here and now. Vigils have no permanence. Books of condolence are placed in drawers. Flowers fade and candle-flames splutter and die. Sadness, shock, grief, tears and heartbreak all lessen over time. The blunt reality is that most lives lost in horrible, bloody circumstances, are lives lost in vain.
Change rarely comes by way of death, mourning and cherished memories: it comes when the living make the necessary change and then stick with it until the change becomes irreversible.
Most of you will know that I fear for Northern Ireland’s future. We are not a stable society. Twenty one years after the Good Friday Agreement and we are fractious and polarised. We have still to prove that we can — and want to — work together. There must be stability at the centre. There must be genuine co-operation. There must be the compromises necessary for the change which benefits everyone.
If there isn’t, then don’t be surprised if Thursday’s radicalised moron is joined by others — on both sides of the divide.
A dissident, broadly defined, is a person who actively challenges an established doctrine, policy or institution. That doesn’t just apply to republicans and loyalists — who think that it’s OK to do their own thing. It also applies to the growing numbers of people presently dissenting from the view that peace, progress, genuine power-sharing and stability is actually achievable in Northern Ireland.
If Lyra’s death — and she spent much of her time thinking, writing and worrying about this place — makes us do anything, then it must be to focus on what we want and how we achieve it. That task now falls to Lyra’s generation and her friends. But don’t just do it for her.
Do it for all of us.