Tuesday, 23 April 2019


It is hard to imagine someone who was more engaged in the business of life than my friend Lyra McKee. Recognised by Forbes magazine as ‘one to watch’ in 2016, her career as both a journalist and an author had since taken off, crowned by a two book deal with Faber last year. At the same time, she had found love. Amazed at her own happiness, she radiated joy – partly because she could not help it, but also deliberately sharing her delight, because what is not to celebrate when you eventually find the love of your life? It still seems impossible that Lyra was shot dead on Thursday night, while reporting on the riots in Derry, as she called that city. There was such a force of energy with her; so much forward motion, and there were all these unfinished sentences, books, conversations and relationships. Everything was still in play.

Lyra first made public waves with her blog on her experiences of growing up gay in Belfast, which was made into a short film. Her Belfast roots were, for better and worse, a huge part of her identity. Knowing from experience that love could be both complex and critical, she made the city, its history, faiths and residents, the focus on her intellectual curiosity and the subject of her writing. ‘The past is not dead, it is not even past’, she wrote, as she drew connections between enduring poverty, prejudice, social exclusion, corruption and cycles of violence. She sent me a draft of her second book, which raised questions around the Bradford case - the unresolved disappearance of some young men during ‘the troubles.’ It was a powerful but very personal call to find out the truth, and promote justice and social reconciliation. Essentially her writing, like her life, was about asking difficult questions and starting conversations.

I only knew Lyra for 18 months. We first met in November 2017, when we were both invited to give a TEDx talk at Stormont. Whether ironically or intentionally, given that the meetings of the Northern Ireland Assembly had been suspended since that January, the theme of the TEDx event was ‘Bridges.’ Invited as a historian and biographer, I spoke about history books as bridges to the past, and biographies as footbridges, which you can cross but only as a tourist, bringing your baggage with you. Lyra spoke about building bridges in the present, making an eloquent call for mutual tolerance and respect. She wanted to reach out to those who rejected her very identity, as an openly gay woman, from a religious viewpoint. She meant this as a paradigm of all the conversations we need to undertake with people with whom we feel fundamentally in disagreement. Hers was the outstanding talk of the evening, the one that stayed with people afterwards.

As I was staying on in Belfast, Lyra and I spent much of the next few days together. She was interested that I was giving a series of talks for a community project supported by the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building, which hoped to improve relations between the Belfast Protestant, and largely-Catholic Polish, communities. We met up again when I returned for a second tour of Orange Lodges in and around Belfast, where I was sometimes told I was the first woman to be invited to speak; a local young offender’s institute; and the Intelligence Corps club. ‘Perhaps all places where I’ll be invited to talk in a year or so,’ Lyra laughed. In the evenings, we went out to various bars and Chinese restaurants, discussing love, the troubles, writing, Harry Potter, our families, Brexit, and generally setting the world to rights. We stayed in touch by email, I sent comments on her manuscript, we met in Belfast on my next visit, and tried and failed to meet in London.

Then a mutual friend emailed me on Friday morning with the shocking news that Lyra had been killed. The second city of Northern Ireland, Derry or Londonderry, was heavily militarised in the 1970s and, despite ceasefires, remains a site of great hardship and civil unrest. Lyra had moved there from Belfast only recently, to live with her partner, a nurse at the city’s hospital. On Thursday evening, police had searched certain properties with the aim of confiscating arms and averting violent protest during the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Uprising. Several cars were set alight later that evening. Lyra had gone over to cover the rapidly escalating situation. Her last tweet said simply, ‘Derry tonight. Absolute madness.’ Then she was shot dead by a man in a balaclava, firing towards police vehicles. The ‘New IRA’, officially an amalgam of armed groups opposed to the peace process, and closely tied to drugs movement and other criminal activity, has since admitted responsibility.

Still in shock, that day I watched as Lyra’s name rightly made national headlines. Theresa May said something fairly non-descript. DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald came to mark their respect in the city where Lyra had last lived and died, and Foster was applauded for her words here, about everyone standing together, and the importance of getting Stormont functioning and democracy working again in Northern Ireland. An immense crowd gathered to remember Lyra, at which her partner paid moving tribute, calling for her death not to be in vain as ‘her life was a shining light.’ Could Lyra’s legacy yet guide Northern Ireland to peace?

Then things became surreal. Bill Clinton tweeted that he was heartbroken by Lyra’s murder. Lyra would have been astounded, if only she could have known. She had a soft spot for a bit of celebrity. She had loved the fact that Ana Matronic had been on the TEDx programme with us and was fabulously friendly in the bar afterwards. Later she told me how J.K. Rowling, another of her heroines, had once replied to one of her tweets. I imagined Lyra laughing, wide-eyed, at her own sudden celebrity, before brushing it off with some modest remark.

Then my facebook thread filled up with wonderful personal tributes to Lyra, most with photos of her goofing about in the bars or streets of her favourite city. She was so sociable, so much fun, so engaging, that she had hundreds of friends in different places, and parts, of her life. Not just the depth, but the reach of the woman was phenomenal, even without the headlines.

Inevitably, the story of Lyra’s death has now sunk down the news columns. As strange and awful as it was seeing Lyra’s face in the papers, seemingly so out of context, I also feel ridiculously angry that her death is now no longer news, that the world has refused to ‘stop the clocks.’ But I also know that Lyra has made a difference. Her life and death have changed things. The Real IRA has been exposed as unprincipled and criminal in their violence, prepared to shoot to kill into a crowd, and the support that was growing for them has haemorrhaged away. The famous ‘Free Derry Corner’ landmark - a blank house wall painted ‘You are now entering Free Derry’, now has graffiti below in letters just as high, ‘#NotInOurName R.I.P. Lyra.’ The overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland seek a better future, one built by two communities who wish to live in peace. Stormont’s politicians have been brought together to talk about rebuilding the democratic process. No one can now say that the Irish border issue is simple or insignificant, or take for granted the priceless peace we have seen for the last few decades.

With Lyra’s death, not just Northern Ireland, but all of us, have all lost an outstanding voice: warm, brave, honest. We must not now lose the momentum with the conversation that Lyra started about tolerance, respect, and sincere engagement with those with whom we most disagree.

Watch Lyra’s TEDx Stormont talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ymU-5Y3rkY

Monday, 11 March 2019

Perhaps this International Women’s Day, we might consider judging women for their agency!

Article originally published on the Andante Travel Website as an interview with Clare

The women of the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, were special agents, recruited, trained, armed and sent to serve behind enemy lines coordinating, training and arming resistance circuits in Nazi-occupied countries alongside their male colleagues. The SOE was established in July 1940, following Winston Churchill’s injunction to ‘set Europe ablaze’. Yet the first female agent of the war, the Polish-born Countess Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, had demanded to be taken on by the British secret services six months earlier, and was in post before the end of 1939! Her achievements in three different theatres of the war showed how valuable female agents could be. Later more women were recruited as they were considered less likely to be stopped and searched than able-bodied men travelling around enemy-occupied countries. Around 39 women were sent into occupied France alone, to act as clandestine couriers and wireless transmitters - work for which they were told they could expect to be arrested, interrogated and executed within six weeks. Many stepped up to undertake sabotage and armed combat, and several became circuit leaders, organising armies of several hundred men. Thirteen would not return.

The women who were involved in this project, what would have given them the ‘edge’ to apply (or be recruited, if that was the case)?

Krystyna Skarbek was unusual in that she approached MI6 to be given a role. Women were usually recruited from other branches of the services when they were discovered to have valuable skills. All the female agents were great patriots with a strong sense of honour and duty. They were determined, ready to endure both stress and loneliness, and each was also incredibly brave. They shared certain skills too; the ability to think quickly and creatively under pressure, languages skills, physical fitness; and the ability to win support and generate loyalty. Yet there was no single ‘type’ of woman that made a good agent. They came from many different countries and faiths, some were young women, others mothers or grandmothers, one had an artificial leg. Beauty could be both a help and hindrance, as an attractive face might charm but was also more memorable. The popular idea that the female agents’ most important role was as a ‘honey-trap’, seducing the enemy into revealing their secrets, is mistaken. Although some did employ their charms to good effect, their most vital attribute was simply that they might be overlooked while getting on with a range of tasks from gathering intelligence to smuggling, and sabotage to transmitting radio communications.

What can guests on Historical Trips’ Women of the SOE tour expect from the experience?

This is a very special and personal tour that follows in the footsteps of several of the female special agents, some of whom did not return, but all of whom made a significant contribution to the Allied war-effort. As well as visiting a couple of small museums, and several public and some quite hidden memorials, family members of several of the special agents have supported the tour, opening up their homes, giving talks, and sharing their knowledge. I feel strongly that the contribution made by the women should be remembered respectfully, and their service honoured.

What do you think is important to consider, discuss or celebrate on International Women’s Day 2019?

I am often asked why I mainly write about women. While I would be delighted to write about the lives of interesting men, the fact is that there is still a rich seam of women’s stories waiting to be told, and plenty of information to be found that has been misfiled under ‘domestic’! Furthermore, all too often female special agents, in particular, are still presented primarily as beautiful and brave, rather than as effective. Perhaps this International Women’s Day, we might consider judging women for their agency!

What interests you so much about women involved in war?

Conflict requires societies to give of their all, even if this means defying previous societal norms. As a result, wars have provided many women with new opportunities, be it working on farms or in factories, as drivers or pilots, or behind enemy lines as special agents. My three books look at the responses of four very different women to conflict. The remarkable Eglantyne Jebb, who distributed aid in the Balkan conflict that turned into the First World War, later defied the law to set up Save the Children, and developed the pioneering concept of children’s human rights - permanently changing the way the world regards and treats children. Krystyna Skarbek was not only the first female agent of the Second World War, but also the longest-serving agent male or female. Brought up to marry well, she yearned for freedom, and was extremely effective when she had the chance to fight for it. Most recently, I have written about the only two women to serve as test-pilots for the Third Reich, one a fanatical Nazi, the other secretly in the German resistance. Their perspectives, choices and actions meant that they would end their lives on opposite sides of history. Perhaps paradoxically, in overturning established special norms conflict can be an enabler, as well as a force of destruction.

You must have experienced some really memorable moments over the years, thanks to your work as an author along with your various lectures and television/radio appearances, could you please share some with us?

I love my job. I am naturally nosy, and being a biographer gives me license to read private letters and diaries, and interview witnesses of the most extraordinary events from the past. My research has led me to sleep in my subjects' bedrooms, and eat from their dishes - how good is washing up, could there be any DNA left on a plate? I have flown a glider in France, eaten breakfast with an assassin’s son in Germany, and in Poland I was once nearly arrested by the Gestapo… honestly, you will have to ask me when you see me!