Belfast Telegraph

Mike Nesbitt: If Lyra's murder isn't to be another death in vain, we need a return to political stability

Dissidents march in Dublin
Dissidents march in Dublin

Mike Nesbitt

I first became aware of Lyra McKee a few years ago when she was seeking support for the book she wanted to write about the murder of the Reverend Robert Bradford.

He was the Ulster Unionist MP shot dead by the IRA in his South Belfast constituency office in 1981. Some 38 years later, Lyra herself fell to a republican's bullet. And be in no doubt, both killings were attacks against democracy. Rev Bradford's may have been a more targeted assassination, certainly, but when the police attend a riot like that on Thursday, April 18, the people most likely to be at the police line with them are politicians and journalists - three essential elements of a democracy.

The strength of public revulsion at Lyra's death gives rise to the question of whether this will be a turning point. Will things change? I support that demand, but I also know that if they do, it will be a triumph for hope over experience.

It was Archbishop Robin Eames whom I first heard caution against heaping too much praise on people who stop doing what they should never have done in the first place. He was referring, of course, to terrorism and those who condone terrorist acts.

I was reminded of what the former Church of Ireland Primate had said when I heard that the illegal Easter Monday parade planned for Derry/Londonderry had been cancelled because of Lyra's murder.

The cancellation was welcome, but don't expect me to offer the organisers any thanks. I also note they did not cancel their parade of shame in Dublin.

The statement from the so-called 'New IRA' about the killing also reminded me of something I had heard previously.

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Saoradh, the political group that represents the views of the New IRA, refused to accept responsibility for the murder, choosing instead to blame the "heavily armed crown forces" who mounted an "incursion" into the Creggan estate, resulting in what Saoradh called a "republican volunteer" attempting to defend the area, with the result that Lyra was "killed accidentally".

What did that remind me of? The words of Gerry Adams discussing how Britain reacted to IRA "mistakes" during the Troubles. Writing in 1986, Mr Adams accused Britain of exploiting the IRA's errors: "... when Oglaigh na hEireann killed or injured civilians the British were always, in classic counter-insurgency fashion, cynically prepared to exploit these mistakes or to create the conditions in which they might occur".

What exploitation? Highlighting the IRA's gross abuse of a civilian's human rights? What conditions? Sending "heavily armed crown forces" into a republican area?

Lyra McKee
Lyra McKee

It's the same thing, 33 years on. Sinn Fein's position has changed. In 2009, Martin McGuinness described the republican killers of Stephen Carroll, the first PSNI officer to be murdered, as "traitors".

On Good Friday, Adams' successor as Sinn Fein president, Mary Lou McDonald, stood in solidarity with unionist politicians at the vigil in the Creggan, her words strongly echoing what President Bill Clinton told the terrorists when he first visited Northern Ireland in 1995.

Speaking at the Mackie's Foundry in west Belfast, Clinton told us: "You must stand firm against terror. You must say to those who still would use violence for political objectives - you are the past; your day is over."

On Good Friday, Ms McDonald's message was the same. That, at least, is progress and I welcome it.

But the sentiment in Saoradh's statement also illustrates that the New IRA is a legacy of the IRA and Sinn Fein's support for its campaign of violence.

Why? Because just as people like Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams argued that the "conditions" justified IRA terrorism, so the New IRA also claim "conditions" justify their actions.

Mike Nesbitt
Mike Nesbitt

My point is that terrorism is an absolute, as in absolutely wrong. Once you move from that position, you open the door to people seeking to argue the environment in which they live gives them permission to murder (and of course, the same applies to the loyalist terror groups).

It would be helpful if republicans and loyalists could start to move their language in the direction of accepting how wrong terrorism is. They should also get off the backs of the communities they repress.

It would also help kick-start reconciliation if we as unionists were more open to honestly analysing 51 years of majoritarian government. I suspect the truth is, it was worse than most unionists admit, but not nearly as bad as nationalists imagine - but either way, nothing justified the loss of a single life.

A few hours after Lyra died, I was contacted by Mike Harris, a campaigner for libel reform. Mike knows I have a Private Members Bill ready to go on the reform of Northern Ireland's antiquated libel laws, if Stormont ever returns during my political lifetime. Mike wanted to know if I would consider naming the bill 'Lyra's Law', as Lyra was a founding member of the NI Libel Reform group.

I said, consider it done, although since then I note there are competing ideas for a 'Lyra's Law', including a same-sex marriage bill, and a bill to penalise those who advocate for organisations that support politically motivated violence.

All three ideas could form part of a fitting legacy for Lyra, but the really appropriate reaction would be a return to political stability. If her murder is not to be another death in vain, we need sustained political leadership like that shown in the wake of Lyra's passing.

I have long argued we should return the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement to its factory settings, and negotiate from there. It would be easier in many ways than the talks of 1998, because the difficult, emotive transitional arrangements no longer apply.

We can focus on the core issue - do you want to share, or not? No group owns Northern Ireland any more.

Stormont is no longer what James Craig called a Protestant parliament for a Protestant state; nor is the Republic de Valera's Catholic state for a Catholic people.

Are we mature enough to build from there, truly offering respect and building trust?

What so impressed me about Lyra McKee's interest in the murder of the Rev Robert Bradford MP is that the two individuals could not form more of a contrast, in gender, sexual orientation and so much more. If Lyra could bridge that gap, and she did, why can't the rest of us?

Mike Nesbitt is an MLA for Strangford, and a former UUP leader and victims commissioner

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