“A lot of people were standing... including children.” Eyewitness Emmet Doyle, recounting what happened in Derry on Thursday night, said he saw the young woman being shot.
“A masked figure stopped at the bottom of the road and fired shots up towards the Land Rovers.
“We all turned and ran. I stopped beside the Land Rover nearer the top of the street and a girl beside me dropped to the ground. More people could have been killed tonight, including children,” he said on his Facebook page.
He had seen 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee fall, having been struck by at least one bullet fired from the gun of a masked rioter.
Ms McKee, while not on duty, was drawn to the violence which had erupted between the PSNI and a group of rioters in the Creggan area.
Speaking at a press conference in Derry yesterday, the PSNI’s assistant chief constable, Mark Hamilton, said police had mounted a search operation on Thursday evening.
We believed that violent dissident republicans were planning attacks in this city and we were looking for munitions and firearms that we believe may be about to be used across the Easter weekend.
“We were in Creggan carrying out a search operation and a public order situation developed in Fanad Drive.
“This public order situation saw over 50 petrol bombs thrown at police, two cars hijacked and set on fire, and then unfortunately at 11 o’clock a gunman appeared and fired a number of shots towards police.
“A young woman, Lyra McKee, 29 years old, was wounded, she was taken away from the scene in a police Land Rover to Altnagelvin hospital but unfortunately she has died.”
Mr Hamilton said he had seen footage of a gunman, crouched and firing down the road, and based on that he believed a handgun had been used.
Police did not return fire.
Mr Hamilton said it had been a “cold and callous” act which was “reckless” and a “clearly orchestrated” attack on police.
“Bringing a firearm out and firing it down the street in a residential area, where they knew lots of people were standing about, is a calculated and callous act,” he said.
He said the New IRA was most likely responsible. “That informs our primary line of inquiry,” he said.
The same dissident republican grouping is also believed to have been responsible for a car bomb which exploded outside the courthouse in Derry in January.
The shocking murder of Ms McKee — and it is murder — is firstly a horrendous tragedy for her partner Sara, her family, loved ones, and friends.
I did not know her personally but I knew of her by reputation as one of the leading emerging voices of the post-Troubles generation in the North.
But the manner and timing of her murder have a greater and fundamental significance. The killing of an Irish journalist by gun has uncomfortable echoes of other horrendous incidents.
The heinous killings of Sunday Independent journalist Veronica Guerin in June 1996 and the 2001 killing of Sunday World reporter Martin O’Hagan are chilling reminders of the price journalists have paid to do their job.
Ms McKee’s short life was taken at the hands of the so-called Real IRA in the name of the glorious cause of a united Ireland.
Coming amid what was believed to be planned and orchestrated violence to coincide with Easter weekend in the Creggan area, it goes to show that the peace process, so widely lauded across the world, is still a fragile one.
There are those, more criminal than freedom fighter, who will use the cover of republicanism to justify their scumbag activities.
That Ms McKee’s death came on the day a senior delegation of American politicians visited the city to see the progress made under the 21 years of the Good Friday Agreement further emphasises the fragility.
Just hours before Ms McKee’s death, US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi had stated that “we treasure the Good Friday accord” as a “beacon to the world”.
In her well-received speech to the Oireachtas, midweek, and paying tribute to the efforts of political leaders, Ms Pelosi said: “On that holy day the world saw the dawn of peace in Northern Ireland that few had dared to dream.”
Ms Pelosi said children born in 1998, when the Belfast Agreement was signed, had grown up in peace.
“We cannot jeopardise that,” she continued. “We must not and will not allow that progress to be undermined.”
Yet, Ms McKee’s premature death does exactly that. The absence of the Northern Assembly, as weak and flawed as it was, for more than two years has allowed a poisonous vacuum emerge which has led to escalating tensions in the province.
For that, both Sinn Féin and particularly the DUP must accept the blame. Sinn Féin can rightly be accused of collapsing the assembly for political reasons but the DUP has been reckless in the extreme in reneging on an agreement last year which would have seen the Stormont administration re-established.
“I said in January,” said Mr Hamilton, that “the threat level in Northern Ireland has been severe for a number of years. That remains extant. It is still severe.
We have seen attacks here in the city; last July, a shooting attack; [the bombing in] January; and now this, so, unfortunately, the threat is present — however, the threat is not dominant.
Widespread condemnation of Ms McKee’s murder came from politicians North and South.
“The Government condemns in the strongest possible terms the fatal shooting of journalist and writer Lyra McKee in Derry. We are all full of sadness after last night’s events. We cannot allow those who want to propagate violence, fear and hate to drag us back to the past,” said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
“I would like to express my sincere condolences to Lyra’s family, her partner Sara, and her friends. Our solidarity also goes out to the people of Derry and to the entire journalism community.”
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald extended her condolences to the family of Ms McKee. She condemned those responsible and called on anyone with information to bring it forward to the PSNI.
“It was with greater horror and sadness that I learned of the killing of Lyra McKee on the streets of Derry last night. Ms McKee will be remembered as a kind, caring and passionate journalist and advocate,” she said.
Such condemnations were predictable but run the risk of being meaningless if nothing changes in terms of the political landscape.
Are we really going to allow the North drift back into a cycle of hostility, violence and killings after so much progress had been made?