By Mairtin O Muilleoir (for Daily Ireland)
I was barely out of shorts the day I saw Malachy McNally tumble from a Morris 1100 outside our house and loose off a volley of shots from his M1 Carbine at a British army pig which had been negotiating the barricade at the top of Ramoan Gardens.
I’m sure it’s 33 years if it’s a day since that gun battle but that image of a distressed armoured vehicle stopping hesitantly and then reversing like the blazes out of our estate stays with me as the enduring image of the indomitable spirit of the nationalist community.
Despite snatch squads and raiding parties, internment camps and informers, Black Watch and Paras, curfews and condemnations, this was a people who would not go down easy.
For west Belfast teenagers, that’s what the IRA was: their pride and their dignity. Without the IRA, they had nothing. Harassed and humiliated by cocky squaddies during the day, they knew that when night fell over Andersonstown, the odds would even up.
Loyalty to the IRA spurred ordinary people on to defy prison sentences and death squads to keep the struggle alive.
Over two-and-a-half decades, unbelieveable sacrifices were made by an incredible people to keep the IRA in action.
Don’t take my word for it: ask anyone who has tossed from side to side on a sleepless night because there’s a dump in the coal shed, or sweated over a thousand pounder primed and ready to go in a Hiace in the garage, or stashed a Green Book behind the children’s play house moments before the search party hit, or turned the blinds just so to ensure the volunteers in the bedroom meeting could see the peelers but the peelers couldn’t see them.
They’ll all tell you the same thing: they kept the IRA going because the IRA was all that stood between them and the utter and total subjugation of a proud people.
Today, the war is over. Those who prosecuted the war and those who provided the sea in which the fighters swam are entitled to hold their heads high.
Though war is by its nature a terror and a horror, they held themselves with honour and dignity, took on an enemy as big as an empire itself and acquited themselves well.
While vindicated, they are wise enough to know that their opponents will try to besmirch their achievement and deny them a fair peace.
But they also know that war is a waste if you don’t win the peace. That’s why in the days ahead they’re willing to see the IRA do whatever it takes to achieve the same freedom and rights for them which are taken for granted by people the world over.
Sentiment and nostalgia have their place too but the tough decisions which lie ahead must be taken dispassionately.
Nothing is sacred, no group is above the democratic voice of the people. That’s why nationalists who made the war possible understand that the people’s army must make way for the people’s party.
The benefits are there to be grabbed. A bigger mandate for Sinn Féin, nationalist hands on the levers of power, a chance to really make change happen.
While the IRA continues to exist, republicans are fielding two teams. Now the’s time for people of immense talent and skill to take their position with the starting fifteen. Who can say that Sinn Féin ever engaged in the political field and didn’t come out ahead?
If the IRA ceases to be, it will liberate the embattled peace process, invigorate nationalists and republicans, put unionists on the back foot and focus minds on the only political show in town: fighting peacefully and democratically to secure the bridgehead of the Good Friday Agreement.
From there, it’ll be a long and tortuous road to a United Ireland, but rather than offering a shortcut to that destination a return to armed struggle will simply hold back freedom’s caravan.
There are those in the British Cabinet and in the DUP who might think they can find a weapon potent enough to turn back this tide of political change. But nationalists took their best shot over 25 years and remained standing.
And ask nationalists what their weapon for change is and they’ll tell you: “ourselves”.