Conspiracy of fear: The darkest days of the IRA were supposed to be long gone… then Lyra McKee was killed. In this brave and haunting dispatch, terror sympathisers and their victims reveal their sickening reality
Driving along the main road through the Creggan — a grim, post-War housing estate scarring the hills overlooking Londonderry — one’s eyes are drawn to two placards, fixed to lampposts draped with the Irish tricolour.
Circled in red, and written in official-looking black letters, they appear from a distance to be road warning signs. When the words come into focus, however, the chilling reality dawns.
‘Informers will be shot. IRA’, one of them declares, its message reinforced by the macabre image of a rat caught in the telescopic sights of a rifle. ‘RUC informers: they will forget you, WE won’t’, declares the other, also endorsed with the imprimatur of the supposedly dormant Irish Republic Army.
On April 18, Lyra McKee, pictured, was shot dead in the Creggan area of Derry City
These intimidating signs were mounted several days ago, just yards from the spot where a masked and hooded sniper fired the bullet that killed journalist Lyra McKee on April 18. Lyra — whose partner Sara Canning last week gave a moving TV interview, revealing that she had been beside her when she was shot — had been on the estate to report on a riot that broke out as police attempted to search the houses of suspected Republican terrorists.
It was filmed on mobile phones by dozens of bystanders; and it is surely no coincidence that the IRA warnings appeared after the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) thanked the people of Creggan for coming forward with their films and offering information about the murder.
Nor that the police had offered a £10,000 reward for evidence leading to a conviction, promising to seek ‘maximum protection’ and anonymity for witnesses willing to testify against the killers.
The PSNI say more than 140 people have helped with the investigation. That is an unprecedented response from a long-time Republican stronghold where mistrust, and in many cases hatred, of the police has simmered since the Bloody Sunday march started there in 1972, and the mass funeral for its 13 victims was held at the local parish church.
She had been on the estate to report on a riot that broke out as police attempted to search the houses of suspected Republican terrorists
Encouraging as this may be, the fact remains that almost a month after Lyra was shot, no one has been charged with a murder whose brutality awoke the world to the reality that sectarian violence continues in pockets of Ulster, 20 years after Tony Blair declared that the Good Friday Agreement had brought lasting peace.
And that resurgent Republican fanatics, in their latest incarnation as the ‘New IRA’, are once again striking terror in the province.
Though the police launched a series of fresh raids in Londonderry on Thursday, the only people to have been charged in relation to events on the night Lyra was killed are two men, aged 51 and 38, accused of riot, petrol bomb offences, and hijacking vehicles.
The New IRA willingly admits that one of its henchmen fired the bullet that killed Lyra — ‘by accident’, they cynically maintain
The New IRA willingly admits that one of its henchmen fired the bullet that killed Lyra — ‘by accident’, they cynically maintain.
Her death was so senseless and so shocking that it was declared to be a watershed event that would finally shame feuding Protestant and Catholic politicians into working together.
People were united in their revulsion and disbelief that this brilliant young writer could be murdered simply for doing her job, for even during the worst days of The Troubles journalists were seldom targets for paramilitaries.
There was justifiable anger towards politicians on all sides, too. In Ulster, the spirit of accord that existed between Republican and Unionist parties when the peace treaty was signed in 1998 has evaporated amid rows over all manner of issues.
Warnings in the Creggan warn ‘informers will be shot’. The sign features the image of ‘rat’ in the crosshairs of a rifle
The disputes became so intractable and acrimonious two years ago that the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended, providing a vacuum in which the New IRA — which never supported the peace process — has flourished.
But the Westminster government must shoulder some of the blame. For years it has ignored the resurgence of factionalism in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, many are furious that it allows British veterans who served during The Troubles to be dragged back to Northern Ireland to face possible prosecution for murder.
The Brexit fiasco — which risks resurrecting the hard border separating North and South — is also playing perfectly into the hands of militant Nationalists. The New IRA admit using this inflammatory issue as a recruiting tool.
At Lyra’s moving funeral, Northern Ireland’s opposing political leaders stood side by side in apparent solidarity. They have pledged to end the in-fighting and begin power-sharing negotiations with the aim of reopening Stormont.
They were chastened by the excoriating speech of Father Martin McGill, who led the funeral at St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast.
‘Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old girl to get to this point?’ he demanded, his rhetoric prompting a standing ovation.
Ulster has seen too many false dawns for there to be anything other than cautious optimism; yet perhaps some good really will come from this senseless murder.
First, however, Lyra’s killers must surely be brought to account. The police insist the flow of information has not been slowed by the warnings posted on the Creggan, though locals suggest otherwise. And visiting the windswept estate, with its conspiratorially narrow streets, their effectiveness becomes depressingly evident.
Using propagandist street slogans and imagery to subjugate and indoctrinate people has long been a tradition in Ulster
Using propagandist street slogans and imagery to subjugate and indoctrinate people has long been a tradition in Ulster. And nowhere is the Republicans’ artwork more visible than in Londonderry, a city so divided that Protestants and Catholics can’t even agree on its name (the latter refer to it as Derry).
This is the cradle of the civil rights movement and home to Nationalist ‘heroes’ such as Martin McGuinness and Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, whose legendary defiance is captured in a huge, gable-end mural overlooking Free Derry Corner. Hunger strike martyr Bobby Sands is also immortalised on bricks and mortar.
Before Lyra’s murder, these melodramatic street symbols had come to be seen as sights for tourists; museum-pieces harking back to the city’s unhappy past.
That threatening signs are now being painted afresh is causing alarm, even on the hard-bitten Creggan. Many of its 12,000 overwhelmingly Catholic residents are plainly terrified, which is exactly what the faceless men who erected them at dead of night intended.
Before Lyra’s murder, these melodramatic street symbols had come to be seen as sights for tourists; museum-pieces harking back to the city’s unhappy past
In a shabby parade of shops near the lampposts, we asked a counter assistant what she thought about the threats.
Glancing nervously at the queue in the store — any member of which might have been a terrorist or sympathiser — she bit her lip and ignored the question. Only when the shop emptied did she whisper her disapproval.
Outside, in the car park, a stocky, late-middle aged man with a ruddy face explained why no one would remove the warning signs.
‘You wouldn’t want to touch them, or you’d end up behind there,’ he said, gesturing towards a secluded area behind the shops, where New IRA henchmen punish local miscreants with a bullet through the knee or ankle.
It might come as another shock that this barbaric practice persists, but recently reported cases prove it does. Among them are a 20-year-old, shot three times in the legs, and a teenage drug dealer whose mother was ordered to escort her son to the back of the shops for his summary knee-capping.
According to Stevie Mallett, who knows the mind-set of young people in Creggan through his position as leader of St Mary’s Youth Club, the signs have affected people differently.
At Lyra’s moving funeral, Northern Ireland’s opposing political leaders stood side by side in apparent solidarity. They have pledged to end the in-fighting and begin power-sharing negotiations with the aim of reopening Stormont
‘It stiffens the resolve of some because they won’t be threatened, but yes, it has an impact,’ said Mr Mallett, 49, who was attacked as he tried to stop the fatal riot.
‘Some people are intimidated. The police are claiming they’ve had a lot of information, but as far as I know no one is putting their name to it. And I would imagine that those who were emotional immediately after the murder, and put themselves forward, are now trying to extricate themselves from the process. Because it’s just not in our nature to inform or co-operate. It’s still a them-and-us attitude.’
Did he think someone might be courageous enough to stand up and name the murderer? ‘I can’t ever see that happening,’ he replied tersely.
In any event, he said, the young killer would undoubtedly be suffering the consequences of his actions. ‘There will be psychological damage. The impact on him alone will be a life sentence. I know people don’t want to have to consider that because it’s a murder…but someone has put that gun in that wee boy’s hand. He has perpetrated the crime, yes, and people will want to persecute and condemn him. But the youth worker in me wants to wrap my arms around him.’
It is a view that won’t be shared by everybody.
Giving her first interview last week, Lyra’s heartbroken partner Ms Canning, a 35-year-old nurse, was in no mood to empathise with the killer. By firing indiscriminately towards a police Land Rover surrounded by innocent bystanders, she said, he had shown ‘no regard for human life’.
Indicating her belief that he might be caught, were it not for the wall of silence guarding his identity, she asked: ‘Why are we protecting that?
‘If it’s your child…I would be ashamed to have a child that had done that. They took away a really amazing person.’
She then turned her wrath on the terrorist leaders who radicalise these young recruits, branding them ‘a scourge’ on the community, and likening them to paedophiles who groom children.
The warning signs do not scare this grieving woman, who should have been enjoying a romantic break in New York with Miss McKee this week, during which her partner had planned to propose.
Nor, indeed, do they frighten Lyra’s friends. Four days after the murder they descended on the Londonderry HQ of Saoradh — identified by police as the New IRA’s political wing — dabbed their hands in red paint and made imprints of their palms on the green walls.
Carried out under the icy glare of the organisation’s chiefs, it was a courageous act symbolizing their contempt for the shadowy group, which they and others in the local community believe has Lyra’s blood on its hands.
Saoradh says it had nothing to do with Lyra’s death.
Whatever the truth, the group has now become the terrifying new face of dissident republicanism on both sides of the border in Ireland.
A chilling glimpse of this was provided when the BBC reporter Emma Vardy courageously confronted a cabal of its leading supporters outside a court in Londonderry after they had been convicted for taking part in an illegal march.
Four days after the murder Lyra’s friends descended on the Londonderry HQ of Saoradh — identified by police as the New IRA’s political wing — dabbed their hands in red paint and made imprints of their palms on the green walls
She was jostled and pushed, and one individual obscured her camera as the stony-faced men refused to answer her questions over whether they felt responsible for Lyra’s murder.
This week Saoradh, which means ‘liberation’ in Irish, once again used threats in an attempt to frighten journalists. Accusing a TV crew who filmed the latest police raids in Londonderry of being ‘complicit’ in ‘invasions’ on Republican homes, they warned that any repeat might ‘endanger’ them. Reportedly led by Thomas Ashe Mellon, a burly, bearded Republican fanatic dubbed ‘the New Martin McGuinness’, this shadowy organisation was formed in 2016 by a rag-tag band of like-minded dissidents.
Publicly, they insist that the body is a distinct entity from the New IRA terror group.
Yet the PSNI believes otherwise and has referred to the ‘significant overlap’ in the leadership of the two groups.
The fringe party’s membership is minuscule in comparison to mainstream republicans Sinn Fein — regarded by Saoradh hardliners as ‘sell-outs’ — but its radical propaganda and rising appeal, particularly among disaffected youths, is causing alarm.
The group refers to Irish nationalism as an ‘unfinished revolution’, and vehemently opposes the Good Friday Agreement.
Indeed, in its regular online postings, Saoradh has claimed ‘armed struggle’ is inevitable ‘as long as imperialism remains the dominant power’.
So why are young Northern Irish boys — many of whom weren’t even born when the Good Friday Agreement was signed — attracted to the New IRA, which is every bit as ruthless as the old Provisionals, having carried out a string of murders since it was formed seven years ago?
Community leaders point to unemployment rates twice the national average; a lack of aspiration and opportunity; and families in which a narrative of victimisation and romanticised nostalgia about The Struggle against Protestant and British ‘oppressors’ passes down the generations.
It is a combustible mix. At a terraced house on Fanad Drive, close to which Lyra was shot, we encountered just the type of man who might fill his sons’ and grandsons’ heads with such stories.
According to one of his neighbours, he was connected to the old IRA and had served a prison sentence.
Had he helped with the murder investigation, we asked when he inched open the door. ‘Heard nothing, saw nothing, saying nothing. That’s what I told the police when they came round here, and that’s what I’m telling you,’ he snarled. ‘I’m an Irish Republican, son.
‘Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but sympathy for that wee girl and her family. But she’s not the first person to die here. And as long as the British are in this country there will be more like her.’
He described the police as ‘the forces of the British Crown occupying this country,’ and blamed them for causing the murder by sparking the riot with their ‘heavy-handed’ house raids. It was textbook IRA thinking. The sort of twisted nonsense trotted out after the atrocities of bygone years.
At Free Derry Corner, a message #not in our name RIP Lyra was painted on the wall
What sort of character might be taken in by such talk? Youth club manager Mr Mallett says he met one only last week.
He is a 16-year-old who idled his time away at school and now finds himself without qualifications or prospects, raging against the system that ‘failed him’.
‘He is at a tipping point, like the vast majority of these young people,’ says Mr Mallett.
‘He is just the sort of person who could gravitate towards an extremist group, go out on the streets — and go bang!
‘This boy may not be academic but he is highly capable and intelligent, and he is a natural leader. If he does take to the streets he’ll take 20 more with him.
Eager to present a more positive message, though, he says the Creggan is no longer a hotbed of radicalism and violence, despite its reputation. The majority of families are decent folks, eager to help uphold the law.
Seeking to explain the antipathy that now exists towards the police, he harks back six years, to a period when they seemed eager to build bridges with the estate’s residents.
On one unforgettable day, they dismounted from their armoured wagons, downed their weapons, stripped off their bullet-proof vests, and walked around in shirt-sleeves for the first time in living memory. There were greeted with smiles and handshakes instead of petrol bombs and bricks.
It was a fleeting rapprochement. Soon afterwards, the forward-thinking sergeant who championed it was moved elsewhere, and some faceless high-ranking officers — ‘the dark hand’, as he describes them — ordered an end to the experiment. ‘It set us back 20 years,’ he says, shaking his head.
True as this may be, however, Democratic Unionist MP for East Londonderry Gregory Campbell believes a major change of attitude is needed to end the dangerous mood of resentment permeating places such as the Creggan.
‘People need to see that all the disadvantages are not the fault of the British government, and that we all bear some responsibility for trying to improve those disadvantages,’ he told the Mail. ‘They apply equally to the Unionist community,’ he said, ‘but our community does not tolerate or vote for killers. Unfortunately, some in their community do.’
This week, Detective Superintendent Jason Murphy, who is leading the investigation into Lyra’s murder, once again urged people to help trap her killers.
He told the Mail: ‘I recognise people living in Creggan may feel it’s difficult to come forward to speak to police. I want to provide a personal reassurance that we are able to deal with these concerns sensitively.’
He added: ‘There is no evidence that the signs erected have affected information being passed to police.
‘Police still continue to receive information from the community about the murder of Lyra and I would like to thank anyone who has come forward.’
We must hope there is no hiding place for Lyra’s killers, and that her futile murder really does bring Ulster to its senses, at long last — that an enduring peace becomes her legacy.
The unthinkable alternative is that the province slides back to bloodshed, hatred and misery — and those chilling warning signs spread far beyond the Creggan.
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