The murder of 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee by the New IRA while she was observing a riot in Derry last week has left Northern Ireland distraught that such violence could still occur in the post-Troubles era. An unnerving question is being asked with increasing urgency – why would anyone from the post-ceasefire generation, with no memory of the Troubles, actively seek to re-enact or return to the conflict?
The Good Friday Agreement, signed 21 years ago in 1998, heralded the birth of a new generation. McKee dubbed them the “ceasefire babies” in a 2016 article for the Atlantic.
Unlike their parents and grandparents, who knew all too well the agonised calls to family and friends after hearing media reports of atrocities, the dreaded door knocks from policemen and the sullen marches behind coffins of loved ones, the new generation were “too young to remember the worst of the terror because we were either in nappies or just out of them when the Provisional IRA ceasefire was called”, McKee described.
But despite the promise of peace, a new breed of terrorist is emerging “through the ranks”, police detective Jason Murphy, who is leading the investigation into McKee’s murder, said recently in a televised appeal.
Over the last year, concerns have grown about dissident Republicans; those who reject the ceasefires of the peace process and continue to believe a united Ireland could be brought about by violence.
Social media footage from the night of McKee’s death showed young people, in their teens and twenties, rioting. Their giddy adolescent screams are audible; the footage shows a masked man with a slender, youthful frame step forward before firing the fatal shots.
Sinéad O’Shea, a documentary maker who spent five years in Derry researching dissident Republicanism for her film A Mother Brings her Son to be Shot, says she met one boy who told her he and his friends wanted the Troubles to return.
“I think they associated the Troubles with a time of status and purpose, and they felt hopeless about now. I can easily imagine other young people wanting some short cut to a feeling of ‘power’ in that community. Most jobs seem out of reach. It is fantastical for them to aspire to fulfilling employment. Drug and alcohol addiction was rife when I was there. Suicide was a common occurrence too. Everyone and everything seemed against them.”
O’Shea adds that it’s important to distinguish between wanting the Troubles to return, and actually becoming a terrorist.
“The boy that said that to me about the Troubles had actually approached dissident Republicans to join them and they told him to come back when he was older but he had decided against it then. Yet he still wanted the Troubles back. It’s a paradox, but not when you look at what else is happening there.”
Marisa McGlinchey, assistant professor in political science at Coventry University and author of the book Unfinished Business, which documents present-day dissident Republicanism, says a new generation of young people are joining groups like the New IRA.
The groups are a mix of former members of the provisional IRA, which was responsible for much of the violence during the conflict and who were involved in the Troubles, and young disaffected youths. “Some of the young people are from traditional Republican families; they are steeped in it. Others are disaffected people who are approached, often in areas like Strabane, Derry or Lurgan”, she says.
Areas like Derry, Northern Ireland’s second city, suffer acute socio-economic deprivation. In the Creggan estate, where last week’s rioting occurred, almost two-thirds of children are born into poverty.
And unemployment is rife: while the UK employment rate sits at 74 per cent, this drops to 69 per cent in Northern Ireland and further still to just 55 per cent in Derry.
McGlinchey says social media also plays a part in marketing the New IRA to a younger audience.
“They have… a lot of social media activity. The groups have Twitter and Facebook accounts which are regularly shut down and [reappear] under different names”.
The existence of the physical Saoradh office in Derry (Saroadh is the Irish word for “liberation”, pronounced “sir-oo”), a political group that has been linked to dissident Republicanism, also means people can simply walk in off the street to approach the groups and express an interest in supporting them, McGlinchey adds.
The political uncertainties of Brexit may have also helped radicalise younger generations. Northern Ireland has been without a government since January 2017 due to an ongoing dispute between the DUP and Sinn Féin, while Brexit has also reignited focus on the border.
“Tensions over the hard Border have somehow given those groups an increased sense of legitimacy. The dissident Republican communities… feel exploited by this crisis. Nobody paid any attention to those communities, especially in the UK, and they were allowed to fester”, O’Shea describes.
Northern Ireland was hardly mentioned prior to the Brexit referendum, O’Shea adds. Indeed, police statistics suggest the spike in violence has not simply been a response to Brexit or the lack of government at Stormont. As McGlinchey puts it, “the new focus on Northern Ireland due to Brexit means that when attacks happen, they hit the headlines more”.
In the days after McKee’s murder, revulsion reverberated through Derry and backlash against the groups was immediate.
In the Creggan estate, graffiti which previously read: “Undefeated Army 2019. Unfinished Revolution” was repainted as “IRA are done. Defeated Army 2019. Finished Revolution”.
Some of McKee’s friends staged a powerful protest at the Saoradh offices, dipping their hands in blood red paint to smear across the office’s walls. Men emerged from the office and stared silently at the protesters, their arms folded. Most of them appeared to be in their twenties.
Many hope McKee’s murder will be a pivotal moment, causing support for dissident Republicanism to plummet. For those old enough to remember it, the prospect of another generation returning to the horrors of Northern Ireland’s past remains an unthinkable nightmare.