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Journalist’s murder sparks fears of renewed violence in Northern Ireland

A young journalist was shot and killed during a riot in Northern Ireland last week, on the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian conflict there. After the riot, fears are mounting that dormant hostilities and violence could reappear. William Brangham talks to reporter Leona O’Neill about the New IRA and how Brexit could push tensions to the breaking point.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: A young journalist was shot and killed during a riot in Northern Ireland last week. Her murder and the riot she was covering happened on the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. That's the landmark peace deal that put an end to Northern Ireland's decades-long sectarian conflict.

    But, as William Brangham reports, this killing has raised fears that that conflict is flaring up again.

  • William Brangham:

    Her name was Lyra McKee. She was a 29-year-old acclaimed writer and journalist. The riot she was covering began when police raided a housing complex in Londonderry, looking for members of dissident groups. A gunman stepped from behind a building and fired at the officers. But McKee, who was standing next to them, was hit.

    This unrest echoes the decades-long brutal sectarian conflict known as the Troubles, which took some 3,500 lives from the 1960s through the late 1990s. A group called the New Irish Republican Army, or IRA, took responsibility for McKee's killing, and apologized, saying she was shot by mistake.

    The New IRA is a small offshoot of the group that fought British rule of Northern Ireland for decades during the Troubles.

    To cover all this and how the ongoing fight over Brexit plays a role in the unrest, I'm joined now via Skype from Londonderry by reporter Leona O'Neill.

    Leona, thank you very much for being here.

    I wonder if you could just start by telling me a little bit about what happened that night. I understand that you were there the night that she was killed. Can you tell us what happened?

  • Leona O’Neill:

    There were serious rioting. There was youths that congregated in the area.

    They fired fireworks at police vehicles. And then, around 11:00 p.m. at night, a masked gunman emerged from the shadows and fired toward police vehicles, and indiscriminately from streets. And he hit Lyra McKee with a bullet. And she, sadly, died.

  • William Brangham:

    And my understanding is that the New IRA, the group that has now claimed responsibility, as we said, it — they're not necessarily the same as the IRA that many Americans will know from decades ago, but who is this group? Who are they?

  • Leona O’Neill:

    They are a new group.

    They are made up mostly of young people who were born after the Good Friday agreement, who were born into peace, who knew nothing of our Troubles and who knew nothing of everything that went on in those days, didn't have the baggage of the past.

    They have been fed nostalgia, perhaps, and that's why they have turned to these methods. There are hundreds of them, hardly hundreds of these New IRA members across Northern Ireland.

    Derry seems to be a bit of a stronghold for them for, whatever reason. And a lot of their activities would center around Derry. We had a car bomb in January.

  • William Brangham:

    My understanding is that the outrage over her killing has been from both sides.

    And I'm just curious, how important do you think that is? Because many of us remember some of the atrocities that occurred during the Troubles and how, when some of the violence reached such a level, and both sides would look at the violence and say, enough is enough.

    Does this strike you as one of those moments?

  • Leona O’Neill:

    Yes, it does.

    It seems to be a bit of a sea change happening here after the murder. The day after her murder, there were Unionists (INAUDIBLE) British politicians (INAUDIBLE) pro-Irish nationalists, for the first time ever, ever in their 40-, 50-year political history, and that was something of a monumental occasion.

    They have vowed to work together to make a better future after what happened to Lyra, and we're only hoping that that will be the case.

  • William Brangham:

    I know I mentioned this at the beginning, but you have written and several others have written about how the ongoing negotiations over Brexit might be exacerbating these problems.

    That's not obvious to many of us here in the U.S. Explain how that could be causing this.

  • Leona O’Neill:

    Well, Brexit in Ireland, north and south, would cause huge problems, because there would be a border if Brexit did go to a head.

    And, suddenly, it's — the deadline we have now is Halloween, because it is a total nightmare, what would happen here in Northern Ireland. Brexit comes with it a lot of regulations. We might have to have a hard border. That would be a border been between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland.

    So not only have we got economic issues, concerns over Brexit, but we also have the concern, the serious concern, over the delicate nature of our peace.

    People from outside Northern Ireland think that we have had peace for the last 20 years, but, in reality, those living on the ground, like me, here know that our peace is very, very delicate. It could be upturned at a moment's notice.

    Tension bubbles onto the surface, violence bubbles onto the surface constantly. And, sometimes, it just explodes. And Brexit has serious — it could be very, very serious for us, without regard — with regard to our peace.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, journalist Leona O'Neill, thank you very much for your time.

  • Leona O’Neill:

    Thank you very much.

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