Lyra McKee and her investigation into the mysterious murder of a unionist MP in 1981

Lyra McKee's investigation into children who went missing during the Troubles – was due to have been published in 2020. Photograph: Jess Lowe/EPA
Lyra McKee was murdered by the New IRA in Derry in April 2019. A 29-year-old writer and journalist, she was watching a riot in the city’s Creggan estate when a dissident republican gunman opened fire. She was hit by a single bullet and died shortly afterwards.

From Belfast, McKee had recently moved to Derry to be with the love of her life, her partner, Sara Canning. “Here’s to better times ahead and saying goodbye to bombs and bullets once and for all,” Ms McKee wrote. Her death stunned Ireland, and the world.

Hours afterwards, political, civic and church leaders gathered in Creggan in shared condemnation of the violence. “Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point?” Fr Martin Magill asked at her funeral; days later, talks to re-establish the North’s power-sharing government at Stormont resumed.

Among the many tributes paid to McKee in the wake of her murder, virtually all spoke of the wasted opportunity. An editor with California-based news site Mediagazer, she had been published in, among others, the Atlantic and Buzzfeed News, and in 2016 she had been named one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 under-30 in media.

In 2018, she signed a two-book deal with London publishing house Faber & Faber, and The Lost Boys – her investigation into children who went missing during the Troubles – was due to have been published in 2020.

Since 2012 she had been working on an investigation into the murder of the Ulster Unionist MP, Robert Bradford, who was shot dead in 1981 in a murder claimed by the IRA. An exclusive extract from Angels with Blue Faces, which is available now from Excalibur Press, is published in today’s Irish Times.

McKee approved the final edit just over a week before she was killed.

Edited excerpt from Angels With Blue Faces by Lyra McKee:

The Troubles were a catalogue of fucked-upness, an A-Z guide of the barbarity of human nature. If you wanted to know how shitty your fellow humans could be, you could pluck a random page in the encyclopaedia known as Lost Lives – a record of every murder during that 30-year period in Northern Ireland’s history – and get an insight into man’s capacity to betray his neighbour, his work colleague, his best friend, and maybe even his own father. There was no low that was too low in war.

Still, the most fucked-up story I ever heard about The Troubles never featured in Lost Lives nor did it ever land on the desk of a cold case detective, even though it had led to death by suicide of at least a few young men. It was about a place called Kincora.

It was still standing, a large, white-washed house perched on the corner of the North Road in East Belfast – deep in Van Morrison territory, close to streets he had written songs about. Before the conflict and during it, Kincora had been a home for boys aged 14-16 and if you had the misfortune to land there as a resident, there was a chance you’d find yourself being regularly raped by some of the people in whose care you’d been entrusted to.

The Kincora saga had been the subject of so many Sunday tabloid “exposés” it was hard to know what was the truth and what wasn’t. There were numerous tales and rumours of men in “high places” – judges, police officers, English civil servants – visiting the home to indulge their sick taste for young lads. Many believed that the home had been the centre of a paedophile ring. This was never proven but it hung around the home like smoke without fire.

Lyra McKee and her mother Joan McKee. Portrait provided by the family
Lyra McKee and her mother Joan McKee. Portrait provided by the family

With the rise of the internet, a ragtag band of amateur cold case sleuths had emerged in Northern Ireland. They would pore over old crimes. Most were investigating what had happened to their own loved ones, having been let down by the authorities. Others were middle-aged men who’d served in the army or volunteered for the IRA and UVF.

Now, in peacetime, they were trying to understand the conflict they’d become embroiled in as young men. You’d see them, sitting in the Linen Hall Library or the Public Records Office down in the Titanic Quarter, between the east of the city and the centre, combing through old books and records.

For others, the past was just more interesting than the present. Northern Ireland’s current news cycle had become so predictable, you could guess what outrage would be dominating the headlines six months in advance. Yet the past was full of mysteries that could not be explained. Of interest in particular, of course, to the amateur detectives was Kincora.

Rumours were plentiful and my friend, who I’ll call Michael, was a collector of them.

I’m not one for conspiracy theories but when it is people you respect like Enoch Powell and Jim Molyneaux who express such suspicions, then they cannot be lightly dismissed - Jeffrey Donaldson 

“Robert Bradford was said to have been asking questions about it before he was murdered,” he said.

“Robert who?” I queried.

“Bradford. He was the MP for South Belfast. Shot dead at Finaghy Community Centre in ’81 by the IRA. But there were always suspicions about it.”

“Why?”

“Because they killed him and not his police bodyguard.”

I let that sink in.

“Well, that’s weird.”

The IRA would never have missed a chance to kill a police officer.

Bradford had been a member of the Ulster Unionist Party and was the elected representative for South Belfast from 1974 to 1981. On internet chat forums, I found long threads where individuals discussed whether he had been asking questions about Kincora before he died. It was strange.

The IRA would not have had a problem with an MP probing a scandal which had effectively shaken the British security services and other institutions, so if Bradford had been asking questions about the home, his murder would have been bad timing from the perspective of the Provos. But what proof was there that he had been? And why did people believe the rumour?

Even though the IRA had claimed responsibility for it, Bradford’s party leader, Jim Molyneaux, had claimed that “not so loyal servants of the crown” were involved in the MP’s killing, before later backing down on the allegation. He also claimed the CIA were involved.

Lyra McKee. Portrait provided by the family
Lyra McKee. Portrait provided by the family

Within weeks, the MP who replaced Bradford, Rev Martin Smyth, told an audience in San Francisco that he knew who had murdered Bradford. Years later, when I met him at his home, I asked Rev Smyth – then in his eighties – about the story and showed a newspaper clipping. “I just don’t remember it,” he’d said. “I can remember being in the States, but I don’t remember this.”

Conspiracy

One day, I met with Jeffrey Donaldson, a former UUP stalwart who’d worked closely with Jim Molyneaux who had later moved to the Democratic Unionist Party and was now the MP for Lagan Valley. He made an interesting claim.

He said senior members of the UUP had harboured suspicions about Bradford’s murder. “I worked with Enoch Powell as his constituency agent and later as personal adviser to the party leader Jim Molyneaux,” he said.

“Both of them felt that there were suspicious aspects to the circumstances of Robert’s death. Jim always felt strongly that Robert had been investigating something that he was about to go public with when he died… He just always had the feeling that Robert had been set up by someone, elsewhere.

“I’m not one for conspiracy theories but when it is people you respect like Enoch Powell and Jim Molyneaux who express such suspicions, then they cannot be lightly dismissed.”

There were two people who knew more than most about the last months of Bradford’s life. Raymond Jordan was his election agent and his wife, Kay, had been Bradford’s personal secretary.

“I remember him getting very angry about Kincora one day,” said Raymond. “But I don’t remember what was said.”

Yet there were a number of incidents the Jordans did remember. Bradford had mentioned taking out an extra life insurance policy in the weeks before his murder.

“He said, ‘If anything happens to me, the wife and kid will be taken care of’,” he recalled.

All MPs were covered by insurance as part of their job. Why had Bradford felt the need to take out an additional insurance policy, weeks before his death? It was a detail, a senior investigating officer on the case would later say he’d heard mentioned in the aftermath of Bradford’s death too, although it hadn’t been viewed as significant.

Around that time he’d also begun organising his constituents’ files, getting them in order. “He said, ‘If anything happens to me, the person who takes over will be able to pick up right away, so nobody’s case will fall behind’,” said Kay.

'You’re frightened'

Around eight weeks before he was shot, Brian Walker, then a young reporter bumped into Bradford, who was in a panic, giving instructions as to how he was to be transported out of the BBC Northern Ireland building afterwards. “I want to be smuggled out the back [entrance]. And I want to lie down in the back [of the car].”

Years later, the incident still stands out in Walker’s memory. “I thought, ‘You’re frightened, boy’.”

Throughout countless interviews, a pattern was emerging that suggested Bradford had known he was going to be murdered. But why? What reason would he have had to believe he was going to be singled out, above all other Unionist politicians?

I made another phone call, this time to Colin Wallace. During the 1970s, Wallace had been an information officer working for the British army in Northern Ireland, while simultaneously working for a secret intelligence unit. I’d asked him to dig around regarding Bradford and what he’d heard regarding the whispers that he’d been about to go public with something relating to Kincora. If anyone would know something, it would be Wallace.

“Well, I got hold of someone,” he said. “He was a fellow who’d served in Northern Ireland and would have been around in ’81. I asked him about Bradford.”

“What did he say?”

“He said he had a vague recollection of Bradford asking questions about something related to child abuse in the weeks before his murder, but he couldn’t be sure it was to do with Kincora. He knew it was to do with child abuse, though.”

Then there was the story told by Sam, an RUC special branch officer, working mainly with IRA informers in west Belfast. The week of Bradford’s murder, he’d said, the branch had received information that the MP was about to be hit… from not one but two agents inside the IRA, telling them an attack was going to happen.

Lyra McKee. Portrait provided by the family
Lyra McKee. Portrait provided by the family

The branch had received good intelligence: time, date, place. Yet, somehow, despite knowing for days beforehand an attack was going to take place, a senior officer had somehow managed to botch the operation by delaying the briefing, keeping his officers in the building for hours, right up until Bradford’s death was announced in a news bulletin on the radio.

Gerry Fitt, the left-leaning nationalist MP for West Belfast, had been working in his office at Westminster when the phone had rung on Saturday afternoon of Bradford’s killing. It had been one of the Ms Fitts - his daughters – as he’d affectionately nicknamed them. “Daddy, Daddy, isn’t that terrible?” she’d said when he’d picked up. “They’ve shot Robert Bradford.”

When he’d gotten the news, Fitt had gone to Bradford’s office, found it unlocked, walked in, and sat in the chair where his friend had been just two days before. Yet something else had happened, something that was now niggling at him. Some time during that afternoon, he’d watched people he’d presumed to be officials – from where, he didn’t know – march into Bradford’s office and leave, carrying his files in their arms. It was strange, and two days later, it was still bothering him… What on earth would they want with a dead man’s files, so soon after his murder?

No House of Commons officials would have gone into Bradford’s office to clear his desk. Even in 1981, an official said, the contents of the office would have been considered part of his estate. They held no records indicating anything to the contrary.

Later, I discovered a document in Bradford’s inquest file, retrieved from the Public Records Office in Belfast. It was a letter authorising the release of contents from his Westminster office – yet it was dated 10 days after his murder.

Shortly before Bradford died, he’d told two friends that if anything were to happen to him, they would find a letter in the drawer of his desk. After his murder, they’d went there, searched the drawers, and found nothing.

It seemed doubtful that there would ever be prosecutions in the Bradford case – even more doubtful, still, that the questions surrounding it would ever be answered.

It would join all the other unsolved crimes of The Troubles, fading into obscurity and the yellowing pages of the history books that littered the shelves of the Linen Hall Library.