Two days that shook the republican world
BY JIM GIBNEY
At 5pm on Tuesday past I heard the dramatic news I never thought I would hear and I didn't want to hear but for which I had been arguing for inside Sinn FŽin for some time. The newsreader announced that the IRA had put arms beyond use. From 5pm until 6pm, when my brother Damien rang to 'see if I was alright', my mind was preoccupied with those comrades of mine who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom and their families.
I thought of Joey Fitsimmons, a 17-year-old youth yet an IRA explosives expert, of Eddie McDonnell, who sang beautifully 'Mary of Dungloe', of Martin Englen, who produced cars out of thin air for IRA missions, of Jackie Mc Mahon, 18 years old, who loved wearing bright flashy shirts to impress the girls. They were in the IRA and died in Andersons Street in the Short Strand in the early hours of the morning in May 1972 in a premature explosion. Four other people died with them, in a two-up two-down house. Their mission was to protect a small Catholic population being attacked by loyalists at Willowfield on the Wood Stock Road close by.
Some months before, on a cold February afternoon on the Castlereagh dual carriageway, a car disintegrated. Inside, dead, was Gerard Bell, whose dander took up the whole of Seaforde Street when he walked along it; Rab Dorrian, whose infant son was run over and killed yards away from his door by a British Army Saracen (he left a wife, Betty and other children behind him); Joe Magee who stepped into that operation at the last minute because another IRA Volunteer couldn't make it (he too left behind a wife, Mina and children); Gerard Steenson also lost his young life that day. Mina was to lose her brother Francis some years later in an IRA operation that went wrong. It also claimed the lives of Joey Surgeoner and Paul Marlowe. Joey and Francis were in the Short Strand IRA.
The smiling face of another comrade, Brendan O'Callaghan, entered my mind. The British Army shot him dead in 1976, one of the first 'shoot to kill' operations. He was armed and on his way to deal with a British Army agent, a Catholic, who had been bombing Catholic homes and bars. The agent was in the Hunting Lodge bar. Brendan was shot dead in the car park. He left behind a wife, Ameila, and two sons. Before his death Brendan with others smuggled guns into the Six Counties. I wondered were any of these guns 'put beyond use'. I also thought of the republicans captured on the Eksund, the Marita Ann, and the Claudia.
When the IRA called their first cessation in August 1994 I sought refuge and strength from the republican plot in Milltown cemetery. On Tuesday I sought emotional comfort from those IRA martyrs I knew and worked with in my early years. And I know many other republicans, in dealing with this massive move by the IRA, will do the same.
The IRA blood in my veins told my heart that the IRA did not need to do what they did; that the British government and David Trimble were not worthy of such a huge move from the IRA; that they were not entitled to it because they had failed the test of the peace process.
But my head told me something entirely different. My head told me the IRA was right; that no matter how difficult it was for republicans, and it is more difficult than the IRA's ceasefire of 1994, the IRA had to save the peace process and only they were brave enough to do it.
In saving the peace process, the IRA would also save the Good Friday Agreement and the new future it promised for us all but particularly for the next generation. I thought of Maibh Tres, my mate's newly born child, and said to myself it was also done for her so that she could grow up in an Ireland free from the oppression that her grandparents and parents experienced.
The IRA's decision when it came took me by surprise by its speed.
The previous day at 3.30pm I gathered with other republicans from across the Six Counties in the Conway Mill to be 'briefed' on a speech that Gerry Adams was to make at 5pm. We all knew that something 'big' was about to happen.
We could detect it in the normally unflappable Mitchel Mc Laughlin's slightly nervous voice as he outlined the state of play. The IRA had received a report from Gerry Adams and Martin Mc Guinness in which they had said a 'groundbreaking' move by them could save the peace process.
We knew that the IRA would respond positively to Gerry and Martin.
This was a mould-breaking day, a day when Gerry Adams would make one of the most important speeches in his life.
I looked around the audience, a section of the people he had led from the front for his entire life. Beside me was Paul Butler, now a Sinn FŽin councillor. From the age of 17, he spent 15 years in gaol, five of them 'on the blanket'. Beside him was Liam Shannon, ex-internee and one of eleven republicans selected by the RUC for specialised torture in August 1971.
To my right sat Paul Kavanagh, a lifer from numerous gaols in England, sitting beside his partner, Martina Anderson, also a former lifer and now a key figure at the Assembly. Dara O'Hagan, Assembly member, and daughter of the legendary late 'JB' and a close friend of the murdered solicitor Rosemary Nelson, flanked Joe Cahill, about whom nothing needs to be said. Michelle Gildernew, MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, fresh from a victorious court challenge to her seat was close by West Tyrone MP Pat Doherty.
Ex-internee, ex-blanketman, H-Block escapee and occupant of many prisons in England, Gerry Mc Donald waited patiently. As did Evelyn Glenhomes, republican credentials impeccable, and her father Dicky, ex-internee who also did time in England. Dessie Mackin, a survivor of an SAS murder bid, mingled as did Councillor Tom Hartley, Sinn FŽin's first PRO in 1973.
Many others were there; PJ and Maria Carraher, whose son Fergal was killed by the Marines; Seamie Finucane, schoolboy internee and ex-blanket man whose lost two brothers in the conflict, John and Pat. Dodie McGuinness, who was out on Bloody Sunday and has stayed out, was at the front. Francie Molloy, Assembly member, and his son Councillor Oliver, sat in the middle row. Maureen Toland was there; her husband Tommy lost his life in the conflict, as did Margaret Adams's brother in law. Ex-prisoner Councillor Chrissie McCauley, partner, advisor and confidante of the irrepressible Richard, Gerry Adams's wordsmith, who himself stood behind the podium. Seanna Walsh, personal friend of Bobby Sands, who spent 23 years in gaol, looked on. Alex Maskey, Assembly member, a survivor of a loyalist murder bid whose friend Alan Lundy was killed by loyalists in Alex's living room, chatted with others.
There were many others from across the Six Counties. In this room were the men and women who fought the British crown forces; who absorbed the worst they and their loyalist allies could inflict and yet continued the struggle for freedom. In his speech, Gerry Adams rightly described them as ' the heartbeat of the struggle for justice and freedom'.
Ireland's freedom struggle is not for the faint hearted. Tested in the cauldron of struggle. This group were being tested in the cauldron of making peace and not for the first time.
Those who spoke at the meeting were not happy. They thought that republicans were being stretched, that Trimble was getting his way, that the IRA had done enough, that republicans should not be responding to pressure.
But their leader would tell them 'A leap of liberation is required'. The following day the IRA provided that leap. In doing so they saved the peace process.
Our world might be shaken but we now have to ensure that the republican struggle is strengthened as a result.
My head told me the IRA was right; that no matter how difficult it was for republicans and it is more difficult than the IRA's ceasefire of 1994, the IRA had to save the peace process and only they were brave enough to do it