It’s not as if we hadn’t been warned. Those who know about Northern Ireland – who live and work there and sense trouble before it happens like elephants sense rain – had been telling us for months its hard-earned peace was as fragile as it had been at any time since the Good Friday Agreement was signed 21 years ago last week.
Republican dissidents who believe in an “unfinished revolution” have been mobilising for several years; the so-called New IRA and its political wing, Saoradh, have been exploiting the power vacuum at Stormont and the disappointment in poorer areas that the promised prosperity – “the spoils of peace,” as investigative reporter Lyra McKee once put it – never really reached them.
These low-lifes – a mix of hardened criminals and bored young hangers-on – are also exploiting the prospect of Brexit and the spectre of a hard border to revive old enmities and tip Northern Ireland back into conflict.
Despite a flurry of violent incidents, such as the car bomb outside Derry City Courthouse in January, such warnings have been met with apathy in Westminster, which seems to have forgotten how much it cost – emotionally and financially – to broker a lasting truce.
Where once peace in Northern Ireland was the Holy Grail for political leaders – a means of securing their place in history – it is now held cheap by irresponsible dunces such as Karen Bradley, who was surprised to discover its people voted along constitutional lines and who recently claimed killings at the hands of security forces were “not crimes”.
Everything changed on Thursday night, however, as gunshots and screams rang out in Derry. The murder of McKee, a much-loved, much-respected journalist, at the hands of a masked gunman, shattered all complacency.
The outpouring of grief for this 29-year-old – a rising star, who had recently moved to the city to be with her partner – demonstrated how much she was cherished as an individual. But, as an intelligent, gay woman, with friends across all communities, McKee was also the embodiment of the future the Good Friday Agreement was supposed to yield. As such, her death was a stark reminder of how much Northern Ireland stands to lose.
For a brief moment, it felt as if the community was teetering on the brink. With many Easter parades planned, the rioting could have spread from town to town as it would once have done. But despite the footage of angry youths and burning vehicles, this is not the 1970s. If politicians do not care about the Good Friday Agreement, then the millions of citizens who voted for it, and forced themselves to accept the compromises required to make it succeed, are less willing to put its imperfect legacy at risk.
In Creggan – the Catholic estate where McKee was shot – hundreds of residents turned out: to mourn her, of course, but also to assert their disdain for the New IRA and everything it pretends to stand for.
“Come stand with us and send a clear message that this community will not allow anyone to pull us back to the past,” said George McGowan, a community worker, who helped organise the gathering. Perhaps the most significant gesture was the overnight tampering with a dissident mural. Before McKee was shot, it read: “IRA. Undefeated Army. Unfinished Revolution.” The following morning it had been changed to: “IRA are done. Defeated Army. Finished Revolution.”
How locals would have reacted if the murder victim had been a police officer instead of a journalist is open to conjecture. Still, the Catholic citizens of Derry resisted the temptation to scapegoat others for the gunman’s crime. Where once they might have bought into Saoradh’s narrative, they scorned its attempt to shift the blame to police who entered Creggan to look for guns and explosives in advance of the anniversary of the 1916 Easter uprising.
They also resisted the temptation to jeer DUP leader Arlene Foster – whose botched green energy scheme led to the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont and whose intransigence over the Brexit backstop could yet see us crash out without a deal – when she came to express her solidarity with their pain.
To be fair, it took some guts for her to make a speech in this Republican heartland; perhaps McKee’s death had prompted a degree of soul-searching.
If so, it is to be hoped it spreads as the violence hasn’t. This tragedy should serve as a catalyst for introspection; for politicians to reflect on the possible consequences of their decisions in a place where the roots of peace are not yet firmly established.
If those Brexiteers who are playing fast and loose with Northern Ireland’s future aren’t moved by the loss of life, then perhaps they will be moved by the reaction of US congressman Richard Neal who said any form of Brexit that put the Good Friday Agreement at risk would scupper the chances of a US/UK trade agreement.
Perhaps, too, they will meditate on the fact that – while it was the US and the UK that brokered the peace – it was EU money that helped it flourish, particularly in Derry, which was, for a time, held up as a model of reconciliation. One of the savage ironies of the recent violence is that EU grants helped pay for the peace bridge over the River Foyle, which linked the city’s Catholic and Protestant communities.
Another savage irony is that McKee would have been one of the sharpest commentators on the wider repercussions of last week’s events. She was under no illusions about the stability of peace in Northern Ireland and – as the Times noted – once wrote: “Just because we’re not at war any more doesn’t mean the shadow of the gunman has left the room.”
How prescient that seems now; and how terrible. McKee has been robbed of her future. And we have been robbed of the insights she would have shared.
Just under a fortnight ago, many people took to Twitter to admit they cried over the final scenes of the second season of Derry Girls. Bill Clinton’s speech on his 1995 visit to the city played over footage of the irrepressible youngsters was a poignant reminder of statesmanlike oratory and burgeoning hope.
“I ask you to build on the opportunity you have before you; to believe that the future can be better than the past; to work together because you have so much more to gain by working together than by drifting apart,” said the then US president.
On Friday morning, the tears being shed were all for McKee and the huge gap she will leave in people’s lives. But – as Easter Sunday dawns – hope is still alive. The backlash against the dissidents shows most people in Derry continue to believe the future can be better than the past; they understand they have more to gain by working together than drifting apart.