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20.08.2019

A beautiful tragedy - murdered journalist Lyra McKee's book is published posthumously

Book review by Jane Whyatt

Lyra McKee was an investigative reporter who specialised in the untold stories of people caught up in Northern Ireland’s long civil war known as The Troubles. She was shot dead in Derry (also known as Londonderry) during rioting in April 2019.

A beautiful tragedy – murdered journalist Lyra Mckee’s book is published posthumously Front cover detail of Lyra McKee's book Angels with Blue Faces. Photo: Excalibur Press Belfast

A native of Belfast, McKee was tenacious in researching violent events and questioning the official versions of what happened. She would spend hours in the Linenhall library poring over old press cuttings whenever she had spare time from her job as the editor of Mediagazer, an online magazine based in Silicon Valley, USA. 

As she says in her Foreword to the book, "Northern Ireland is a beautiful tragedy, strangled by the chains of its past and its present. It’s a place full of darkness and mysteries. It’s also my home. Sometimes, I love it and hate it in equal measure. Yet, despite being a tiny country, we disproportionately contribute talent to the rest of the world.”

McKee had spent five years researching the reasons and motives for the assassination in 1981 of South Belfast MP Robert Bradford during The Troubles. During her investigations, she admitted to friends that she was ’getting paranoid’ because she realised that others who had probed the same events had met violent ends. Her book, Angels with Blue Faces, is the result of this research and has now been published posthumously.

It reveals links between Unionist and Republican paramilitaries and the British intelligence services. 

They include allegations of bribery involving informants and paramilitary prisoners as well as blackmail threats, based on a paedophile ring at the Kincora Boys Home in Belfast with links to teenagers who were brought from Dublin to Northern Ireland. 

In the book, McKee tries to find out whether the IRA colluded with the British secret services to silence Robert Bradford, believing he was about to reveal what he knew – perhaps by using parliamentary privilege, which covers MPs’ statements in the chamber of the House of Commons and shields them from libel suits. Bradford took out extra life insurance during the weeks before he was shot dead. He wrote and sealed a letter, to be opened in the event of his death, which he left in the drawer of his desk at the House of Commons. 

The letter has never been found.

Despite drawing a blank on the letter which might have revealed why Robert Bradford MP was assassinated, McKee continued to interview witnesses and reporters who had worked on the Kincora scandal and covered the MP’s murder. Some were informants in the pay of the British secret service, former IRA prisoners. She took care to change their names ans details of where she met them, if that would potentially put them in danger.

Men who had been abused as young boys gave graphic accounts of how they were brutally and repeatedly raped, and McKee does not spare us from the gory details.

As a prominent LGBTQI campaigner, Lyra McKee understood that closet gay men in public life or the British Army during the Troubles were targets for blackmail, bribery and coercion. Boys with no prospects at a time of high unemployment – especially for Catholics - could easily drift into prostitution. Male homosexuality was a crime in Northern Ireland until 1981, fourteen years after it had been de-criminalised in 1967 in England and Wales. Although she wrote the book in her twenties and was murdered before her thirtieth birthday, McKee’s writing shows a maturity and  compassion that comes from her position as both an insider - an investigative reporter and native of Belfast – and as an outsider, a young woman whose experience of growing up gay in Northern Ireland was the subject of her first short film.

The title of McKee’s book refers to a phrase by one of her interviewees, who had been abused by the paedophile ring. He described being taken to an expensive hotel at Enniskillen where there were statues that looked ’like angels with blue faces’. The book opens and closes with a description of teenage prostitutes meeting their regular clients in fancy cars near St Anne’s cathedral. One of Lyra's friends remarks that she was also approached for sex by one of these men: "He turned out to be a very high-ranking British civil servant", she claims.

St.Anne's is the same cathedral where the author’s funeral service was held, in the presence of high-ranking politicians – including the then UK Prime Minister Theresa May and the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Tributes were paid to Lyra McKee as a victim of the renewed violence in Northern Ireland. But so far her killer is enjoying impunity. Her book - despite its damning revelations - is not provoking a political reaction and has been unfavourably reviewed in the Irish press.

Angels with blue faces by Lyra McKee is published by Excalibur Press.

Profits from the sale of the book go to The Merlin Project, founded by Excalibur Press publisher Tina Calder to inspire and empower new authors in Northern Ireland.