Life was going well for Lyra McKee. The 29-year-old had forged a reputation as a fearless investigative journalist and had just signed a two-year book deal. She had moved from her native Belfast to Derry, to be with her girlfriend Sara, was planning to propose and had even bought an engagement ring. Her highly-respected reporting was published at home and abroad.


But on an April evening in 2019, Lyra was killed, while observing and reporting on a riot – her partner standing right beside her - in the Creggan area of Derry. Youths were throwing missiles and petrol bombs at police when shots rang out. Dissident republican group the New IRA later admitted responsibility for the attack on Lyra, who had been described as the voice of her generation of so-called “Ceasefire Babies”.

Her death, on the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Peace Agreement, unleashed an emotional response from those in her homeland, tributes from around the world and a backlash against the violent act that killed her. Two men are awaiting trial charged with Lyra’s murder. Both deny the charges. But, for all the strong condemnations expressed in the aftermath of her death, politics has returned to business as usual in the months and years since.

Now, Lyra’s life is the subject of a documentary coming to Channel 4 this week. Her sister Nichola McKee Corner, 15 years older than Lyra, features prominently in the film, just as she did in her sister’s life.

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For Nichola, the documentary gives her little sister “her own voice back”. She is hopeful that it might inspire people “to make lasting changes in our country so that no-one else has to experience what we have had to experience. It is horrific and it never goes away. There should be no more deaths in this country. The bullet needs to stop here,” she says. “160 people have lost their lives through conflict-related situations since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.”

Directed by Alison Millar, a Northern Ireland-based, BAFTA-winning filmmaker and close friend of Lyra, the film uses old home videos and more recent footage recorded on Lyra’s phone, as well as audio and video recordings of Lyra in public and private moments, to tell her remarkable and tragic story. It also includes excerpts of her writing, weaving a very personal narrative into news footage of the Troubles and reporting of her death.

Millar had known Lyra since 2008 and the pair had planned to meet the day after she died. “She was due to come to my house for dinner with Sara the next night and then Sara called me at midnight that night to tell me that she had been shot and she was dead,” she says.

Millar approached the film, which is a touching and informative tribute to Lyra’s life, a testament to her work shining a light on some dark corners of Northern Ireland’s past, and a meditation on the meaning of peace for those communities left behind, with “fear and a lot of anxiety”.

“Lyra and I had worked on lots of stuff together,” she says, “but this is a film you never think you are going to make and you would never want to make because you don’t want your friend to be killed.”

Lyra McKee outside the Sunflower Bar on Union Street in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Lyra McKee outside the Sunflower Bar on Union Street in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Jess Lowe/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Lyra was the baby in a family of six, raised by single mother Joan in the mainly Catholic working class Ardoyne area of Belfast. For Nichola, who works as a teacher in Belfast, it is difficult to watch the documentary, even though she and Lyra’s partner were closely involved in its making.

“It is very strange because it feels like Lyra is alive through a lot of it,” she says. “That is the beauty of it but at the same time you lose her again.”

Lyra’s journalism tackled issues such as the high suicide rate among young people in ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland and incidents from the past including the killing of civilians by the British Army in Ballymurphy in 1971. Their families are still seeking the truth more than 50 years on.

Lyra was “finding stories in places that no-one else was really looking”, says Millar. “She started writing about Ballymurphy when she was 16 or 17.”

If women are under-represented in Northern Irish society then working class women and LGBTQ+ women are even more so. Lyra was all three. The documentary explores what made her such a unique reporter.

“The heart of her belief was that communities need a voice,” says Alison. “She was a real believer that you had to listen to the community. She had fearlessness but also a naïve, inquisitive nature. Her mobile was full of people who she entered their world, told their story, listened to them. She made an impression. That was her raw thing, to try and always keep digging. She wanted answers.”

When Lyra was killed, in a show of unity, the leaders of Northern Ireland’s main political parties released a joint statement calling it “an attack on the peace and democratic processes”.

Today, Northern Ireland’s devolved government is in limbo, with the Unionist DUP refusing to nominate ministers, which means the cross community administration required by law can’t be formed. Despite Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s recent deal with the EU on Northern Ireland, the DUP says it is not enough for them to go back into government.

“The only way things can change is proper stable governance in this country,” says Nichola. “Those local politicians are letting us down all of the time and the people keep voting for them because they keep playing the fear card. That’s keeping us strangled by the chains of the past - we need to break through. We need to be in a day where people are not fearful for their young ones going out.”

She says that 25 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, “the spoils of peace have not reached working class communities. If you go to any working class community in Northern Ireland and film it or take photographs and compare it with pre-1998 you will see either very little difference or a deterioration.”

Asked what Lyra would have made of all the attention surrounding the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which has included a visit to Northern Ireland from US President Joe Biden, Millar reads from the posthumous publication of Lyra’s writings, Lost, Found, Remembered.

Lyra, like so many young people in Northern Ireland, wanted an end to the old divisions, having “lived with its legacy”. She wrote: “I don’t want a United Ireland or a stronger Union. I just want a better life.”

Lyra airs at 9:25pm on Saturday 15th April on Channel 4. Check out more of our Documentaries coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to see what’s on tonight.


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