IRA decommissioning has freed our future
I only recall hearing the volley of shots. It created a bit of commotion at the end of the lane. And then there was a loud round of applause.
The funeral of Francis Hughes in May 1981 was the first occasion on which I witnessed IRA weapons being fired.
At the age of eight I wasn’t even tall enough to see the firing party.
However, the previous evening I saw other guns being fired – up close and personal.
Several hundred men, women and children had been marching in support of the hunger strikers into Toome village, converging from southwest Antrim on the east of the Bann and south Derry on the west side of the Bann.
As we entered the village, stewards were running towards us shouting for all the women and children to get off the road into the chapel grounds.
Seconds later a distinctive high-pitched revving revealed half a dozen RUC Land Rovers speeding past, dozens of plastic bullets being fired, Wild West-style, in all directions.
A number of men lay unconscious and injured after being struck by plastic bullets – some were arrested.
Like many people, as the IRA left the political battlefield yesterday, I thought about the period of the hunger strike.
Some of the people who formed the IRA guard of honour at Francis Hughes’ funeral are now dead. Some were imprisoned. Some were killed in direct military action with British forces.
Without doubt, their relatives – and many others who have lost loved ones on all sides during the conflict – will be sitting this morning in a turmoil of quiet, tired, confused emotion: utterly uncertain about the present; deeply hurt about the past; nervously hopeful for the future.
Thousands of republicans across Ireland may be experiencing similar feelings. And yet they will be also be coming to terms with the IRA’s initiative by looking into the eyes of their children or their grandchildren.
For whatever view republicans take of the IRA’s actions in putting all weapons beyond use, no republican will argue with efforts to provide a better future for all the people of Ireland.
A gilded image of that growing opportunity for peaceful political transformation on the island emerged at the massive republican rally in Dublin last Saturday.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 people from across the country assembled in Ireland’s capital city for a confident, colourful spectacle to mark the 100th anniversary of Sinn Féin’s foundation.
The 100-foot long banner at the head of the march read: ‘We are the people of struggle, ours is the culture of change’.
The following day, Michael McDowell attacked the event with obnoxious and offensive language. He also devoted an entire page in a Sunday newspaper to assert that he was a true republican (on account of the actions of his forebears) and, more significantly, that it was time to recapture the vision of Irish unity from Sinn Féin.
In other circles yesterday, a variety of observers questioned how republicans would react to another unionist pogrom, like the burning of Bombay Street, without the backing of a well-armed IRA.
Each of these perspectives actually highlights the transforming approach adopted by the republican leadership since April 2005.
Republicans have embarked on a course over recent months which is not concerned with responding to other agendas or with planning for every contingency.
In fact, it is Sinn Féin’s conservative political opponents who are furiously reacting to the republican agenda for Irish unity and independence. And in the remote possibility that there is another Bombay Street, republicans say they will assess the prevailing conditions at the time.
Small wonder then that hardline unionism is in a state of delayed shock at the reality that the IRA has delivered.
It’s not just Sinn Féin’s political opponents who are sleepwalking through the nightmare of a peaceful and accountable power-sharing government, based on equality in a transformed society, with republicans north and south.
Just consider how the scores of political detectives within the North’s security superstructure must feel this morning. These are figures whose entire raison d’etre was predicated on the existence of a fully operational IRA maintaining its military capacity. They have built their careers on the IRA. Their mortgages have relied on the IRA. They have gained power to spy and harass and ruin lives, largely by virtue of the IRA’s existence. Yet, in just six months, the IRA has wrapped up its tent and gone away.
In the act of leaving the battlefield, the IRA has been more effective in destablising the cosy conservative cartels across the island than a lifetime of bomb attacks and shootings.
Some will wonder whether the rifles used to honour Francis Hughes have been put beyond use. But that must be considered in the context of Francis Hughes’ struggle after being captured.
In the torturous hell-hole of Long Kesh, Francis Hughes had no guns, no rank, no uniform. He was symbolically and literally naked. And yet his peaceful, dignified, non-violent protest – alongside those of his comrades – was so convincing and powerful that it resounded around the world.
While no one knows how someone like Francis Hughes would view the current IRA, a large majority of those republicans incarcerated in Long Kesh and elsewhere have thrown their weight behind the current republican leadership.
That leadership yesterday urged republicans to “think beyond the moment”.
“It is not the leap itself but the place it takes us all that is important,” Gerry Adams said.
The root cause of IRA activity in the last 35 years was the partition of Ireland.
Partition has imprisoned our past. The IRA has now freed our future. Tomorrow is a new country.
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