A number of women smear red paint in hand prints
A number of women smear red paint in hand prints on republican slogans outside the office of Saoradh, a political group linked to the New IRA, in protest against the killing. Image Credit: AFP

DUBLIN: The acknowledgement by the New IRA that it was responsible for the fatal shooting of a journalist last Thursday should serve as a wake-up call in Northern Ireland.

The dissident Republican group said it was responsible for the killing of 29-year-old Lyra McKee as she stood next to police officers during rioting in the volatile Creggan area of Derry — and the episode serves as a reminder of deep political divisions in the province that were manifest during three decades of “the Troubles” that ended 21 years ago. Then, 3,600 died and another 36,000 were injured, with the city of 100,000 being an epicentre of violence during that campaign.

Lyra McKee
Lyra McKee Image Credit: AP

It’s an emotive time in Derry right now. Hopes that the families of 14 local residents who were fatally shot by British paratroopers in January 1972 — Bloody Sunday — might see some soldiers face trial, were dashed last month when the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) decided that only one former lance corporal would face trial.

It was a pointless and futile act to destroy the progress made over the last 20 years, which has the overwhelming support of people everywhere.

- Statement by Northern Ireland’s six main political parties following McKee’s death

In a separate case, the PPS decided that another former British soldier will stand trial for the murder of 15-year-old Daniel Hegarty, shot twice in the head by an army patrol in Derry in July 1972.

But these two historic cases alone don’t explain the tensions in the city now — two decades after the Irish Republican Army and other paramilitaries agreed to disarm and disband.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 set up a power-sharing government for Northern Ireland, a move that saw the security structures along the Irish border removed, opening a new era in cross-border activity and economic growth.

The Northern Ireland Assembly, however, hasn’t met in two years in an impasse over language and cultural rights — and follows other impasses over policing in the British-governed province.

A message of condolence
A message of condolence was added to the mural at Free Derry corner in the city following McKee’s killing. Image Credit: AFP

There are growing concerns too that Brexit — Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK will leave the European Union, while the Republic of Ireland to the south will remain — will result in a return of a hard border, replete with security and customs checks.

While the EU has insisted on a backstop to keep that border open, the failure of politicians in London to reach any agreement has led to fears that extremist Republican elements might resort to arms once more.

A number of terrorist-related incidents and arrests in Northern Ireland in recent months gives some credence to that theory, though the vast majority of nationalists — those who want a united Ireland on the whole of the island — believe that only constitutional politics is the way forward.

People gather around the floral tributes
People gather around the floral tributes placed at the scene in the Creggan area of Derry in Northern Ireland on Sunday, where journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead. Image Credit: AFP

The reality is that the residents of Derry — and every other community touched by the horrors of the Troubles — have no desire to see a return to violence, and that the New IRA has little real support.

But Easter too is a time when Republican tensions are highlighted in commemorations, marking the failed 1916 rising against British rule, perhaps where romanticism clouds clear thinking. The death of McKee should be a costly reality check.