Boston College highlighted three women journalists from three generations of the Troubles in Northern Ireland at the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. They were:
- Susan McKay, a teenager in 1972 when her native Derry became the center of international attention on Bloody Sunday. She established her reputation for fearless reporting of the loyalist community during the Drumcree conflicts in Portadown in the late 1990s, and post-agreement coverage. She has authored Northern Protestants – On Shifting Ground, 2021, Bear In Mind These Dead, 2007, and other work.
- Freya McClements, Northern editor of The Irish Times, 17 when the Good Friday Agreement was reached in 1998. Her post-agreement work includes Children of the Troubles, 2020, co-written with RTÉ broadcaster Joe Duffy. The book details the stories of 186 youth aged 16 and under who died in the conflict between 1969 and 2006, including some killed accidentally and not part of earlier Troubles’ death lists.
- Lyra McKee, a 29-year-old up-and-coming journalist killed during 2019 rioting in the Creggan area of Derry. Now subject of a new documentary film, Lyra, McKee helped call attention to high post-agreement teen suicide rates in the North and LGBTQ advocacy.
The 92-minute Lyra is a tough to watch, in part because viewers are drawn so intimately into McKee’s life through an abundance of archival video dating to her childhood in Belfast’s Ardoyne neighborhood, a working-class, mostly Catholic and republican enclave. We see her grow up, blossom with professional and personal promise, then get shot as senselessly as earlier Troubles deaths.
Authorities have attributed McKee’s murder to an IRA splinter group. Several people have been arrested but nobody has been convicted of the crime.
McKee was represented at BC by her surviving partner, Sara Canning. She said the best way to honor McKee’s memory is to contribute to the Lyra McKee Journalism Training Bursary at the Centre for Investigative Journalism. And she encouraged wide viewership of the movie.
Here’s the official trailer:
McClements, the Times editor, said there has been “peace but not reconciliation” in Northern Ireland over the last quarter century. She noted that most schools remain segregated by religion and dozens of “peace walls” are still required to separate sectarian neighborhoods. Brexit has created “a new fault line” of tension in the North.
McClements predicted that the Democratic Unionist Party will rejoin the Northern Ireland Assembly, which it has boycotted for over a year, perhaps by this fall. If not, she said, the British and Irish governments will begin to devise an alternative, which could leave the DUP and other unionist hardlines even more in the cold. Direct rule from London is not an option, she said.
Adding to the tension is the British government’s determination to pass a “Troubles Legacy and Reconciliation Bill,” which seems to have support only from the Tory majority and military veterans groups. The measure, which blocks enquiries of past events and even destroys records, is opposed by Northern politicians, the European Union, the United Nations, and the United States. McClements expects Parliament will pass the measure, which will then be targeted for a long grind of court challenges.
McKay said she had to learn to rein in her aggressiveness to get the story when she noticed the fear in other journalists also covering the loyalist mobs at Drumcree. She said that international press coverage of the Troubles “on the whole told the story properly,” though some visiting journalists “looking for certain images were disappointed if they didn’t get it.”
McKay declined to speculate about the immediate future of Northern Ireland politics due to her current role as ombudsman for the Press Council of Ireland.
BC’s two-day symposium began with Belfast-born author Louise Kennedy reading from her acclaimed debut novel, Trespasses, about a romance across the sectarian divide in 1970s. A previous symposium at BC reconsidered terrorism in Northern Ireland. The latest event concluded the 2022-23 academic year at the school’s Irish Studies program under the leadership of historian Guy Beiner.