14 April 2005 Edition
Successful Peace Process: Difficult choices
BY JIM GIBNEY
It is tough being a republican of my generation and vintage when it comes to dealing with the demands of the Peace Process and the impact they have, particularly on the IRA.
I grew up with the IRA from a teenager to now in my middle years. As I went through my age phases, they too went through theirs.
I remember a time when there was no IRA worth talking about.
In 1969, with others from the Short Strand, we stood at the corner of Madrid Street and Bryson Street in fear of our lives and that of our families because it was rumoured that loyalists were on their way to burn our homes.
We were a motley crew: my Dad was there, a timid man. A middle-aged quiet family man across the street anxiously moved from one foot to another with trepidation. We were joined by a Protestant neighbour who feared for us and his family.
A few others like me, 15-year-olds with the foolish courage of youth, stood with us.
We put ourselves forward to protect the people of our street. No one knew what to do if the loyalists did arrive to burn us out. We had a few batons and bin lids. There wasn't a gun in sight, imitation or otherwise.
A group of 'B' Specials and RUC men walked on the other side of the street towards their barracks. They cared little for us, a group of nervous vigilantes, or our plight.
But the fledgling IRA cared for us. We staked our line of defence at the corner of that street and the IRA joined us.
Their presence gave the people of the street the confidence that they would be protected, safe to sleep in their beds at night.
They brought older teenagers than us with them. This allowed my Dad and other men of his age to go home to reassure their families.
IRA Volunteers, strangers to Bryson Street, with worries about the people of their own streets, stopped with us every night for months until the loyalist threat receded.
In those early years, IRA Volunteers were called upon time and time again to protect the Catholic people of Belfast from the violence of the northern state. Some paid with their lives in doing so.
Looking back on those days, I can see why the IRA, emerging from years in the wilderness, was so important to the generation before ours.
We hadn't experienced the sense of defeat that came with partition, the civil war, the various IRA campaigns. They had.
They had also lived in fear and were regularly humiliated by the armed forces of the state, who suppressed their political and cultural identity.
The IRA that emerged in 1969 changed all of that. They gave nationalists their pride back, gave them a sense of their worth as human beings.
The state they lived in treated them as second-class citizens in their own country but the IRA made them first class citizens.
The IRA neutered the power of the state at the very point where it tried to hurt nationalists.
There was a time when one RUC man could have intimidated an entire nationalist district. After 1969, the RUC were afraid of nationalists because of the IRA.
The RUC were the enforcers of unionist bigotry and discrimination, the blunt instrument that kept unionists in power in their one party state. After 1969, this blunt instrument had to be protected by the British Army if it wanted to raid the home of a single nationalist.
The once all-powerful unionist state no longer frightened nationalists and Catholics because they had the IRA.
There were, of course, other factors that encouraged nationalists to stand up for themselves, such as the Civil Rights Movement.
But it was the IRA on the ground that made the difference.
Out of the two-up two-down houses in the cities, out of the small farm holdings across rural Ireland, came an army of Volunteers representing the powerless and dispossessed.
And what an Army they turned out to be.
For 25 years, backed by the republican people of Ireland, they held their ground against the formidable resources of the British Crown forces and their loyalist allies.
They fought where they lived in the small streets and country lanes. And when they had to, they took the fight to England.
Hundreds of IRA Volunteers lost their lives in this phase of the war of independence. More spent decades in gaols in Ireland, England, Europe and the US.
The IRA hurt people and left a painful legacy in their wake but the first time a possible alternative to them came along they sued for peace.
For many republicans, the IRA is an important point of reference in their lives.
I went to gaol as a teenager. Most of my contemporaries did as well. As a teenager I buried my friends, who were also teenagers and IRA Volunteers.
I watched some of my friends spend decades in jail for their IRA activities.
Last Sunday, I was at a special anniversary Mass. Thirty years ago, a loyalist threw a bomb into the Strand Bar in the Short Strand and killed six people four women and two women.
The Short Strand community, like other communities, nationalist and unionist, across the Six Counties, paid a heavy price during the war.
But the Ireland of today is a very different place to the one that I grew up in.
What I and other republicans had to do, thankfully this generation of republicans don't have to.
And that, I believe, is down to the IRA and the gains it made on the battlefield and to Sinn Féin and the gains it has made in the political arena.
Last week, Gerry Adams made the most difficult speech in his life, a speech I believe he never thought he would make in the current circumstances.
I didn't expect it and I know many other republicans didn't.
I support Gerry's appeal to the IRA to consider its future, even though it is difficult to accept that the IRA should act unilaterally.
However, that said, we have spent our entire lives in difficult situations created by the war.
We are now facing a difficult situation arising out of a successful Peace Process.
I think we can live with that.