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For some, the RPG-7 was once icon of 'armed struggle' - now it's a symbol of its futility

Dissidents toting rocket launchers in Ardoyne are historical throwbacks overtaken by 'people power', says Henry McDonald

There is an urban legend on Belfast's Shankill Road, relating to the first time members of the UDA's so-called "C" Company test-fired their first-ever rocket propelled grenade. In the early-1990s, when Johnny Adair's terror unit was causing mayhem and murder all over greater Belfast and beyond, members of his notorious unit took the RPG weapon to the peace wall dividing the left-hand side of the Shankill from the Falls.

One impeccable source told this author at the time of researching UDA: Inside the Heart of Loyalist Terror (co-authored with Jim Cusack) that the RPG testers got a little confused. Instead of pointing the warhead directly at the fortified peace wall, with a view to firing the explosive missile into the Catholic/nationalist side, the man with the RPG on his shoulder somehow imagined the grenade would come out of the rounded back end of the weapon.

Perhaps he had been watching too many Audie Murphy and John Wayne movies about the Second World War, but after directing the circular bottom end of the RPG and pressing the firing mechanism, the grenade shot off in the opposite direction, landing on waste ground close to Protestant homes in loyalist Conway Street and, in effect, almost causing a serious "own goal" against their own community.

To this day, the source of this information swears that the incident, which was both farcical and potentially tragic, actually happened. If true, it stands in stark contrast to the way republicans handled such weapons to such lethal effect as a means of penetrating the armour of RUC Land Rovers and Army vehicles during the Troubles.

Indeed, the RPG became such a frequent weapon of choice in bids to kill soldiers and police officers in one corner of west Belfast that Beechmount Avenue was renamed "RPG Avenue" towards the latter end of the conflict.

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Of course, both the UDA and UVF also used the RPG in attacks on Sinn Fein advice centres and in a revenge sortie against republican inmates inside Belfast's Crumlin Road jail following an IRA bomb at the prison that killed two loyalist inmates.

Nevertheless, the RPG mainly became synonymous with the IRA's arsenal of weaponry in the Troubles, earning it the ghoulish nickname of the "tin can opener" (given the way the warhead tore strips out of the heavily fortified, battleship-grey armour around RUC Land Rovers).

Yet, for all the boasting, the peacock-like prowess and the machismo surrounding this weapon of destruction, in the end it was like everything else in the "Long War": all for nothing.

The organisation that deployed the RPG ended up participating in a political project not too dissimilar to the one in 1974 - the Sunningdale power-sharing arrangement - that both they and the Ulster Workers Council sought to destroy. It contributed nothing but death, grief, misery and division in a society still unable to heal from such collective wounds.

The RPG and new variant forms of the rocket launcher, including a post-Soviet Russian military-grade weapon, were put to new use by the Real IRA when it attacked MI6's headquarters in Vauxhall, London in 2000.

Home-made versions of the weapon - known in the 1990s as "Prigs" - were seen on the streets of Ardoyne just two years ago when the New IRA issued propaganda pictures of its members holding them, pointing the warheads in the direction of the Crumlin Road where on at least one occasion a rocket-propelled grenade struck the side of a PSNI Land Rover (but resulted in no casualties).

Now, the latest social media video from the New IRA has two masked men in Ardoyne, one whom appears to be holding an assault rifle while the other brandishes what seems to be an RPG of some variety.

The images have, of course, produced outrage and gales of condemnation from all sides of the political divide represented in the Assembly and elsewhere.

Joanne McGibbon, whose husband, Michael, was murdered by dissident republicans in Ardoyne in April, probably summed it up best when she described the spectacle as "sad and desperate".

Her words carry more moral weight and authority than any politician condemning this blurry show of strength.

Michael McGibbon was murdered for the "crime" of merely insulting the relative of one of the "made men" in Ardoyne, who belong to the terror group.

In that, of course, her husband was not granted any judge, legal representation, a jury, or right to appeal; no human rights for him in their particular "justice system".

It is all the more macabre for Joanne McGibbon and her four children that the weapon was filmed in the same alleyway where her husband lay bleeding to death after being shot. This was insult added to the ultimate injury.

Although the McGibbon family have moved out of Ardoyne, Joanne's words, in the end, will be more powerful than the impact of a grenade fired at top velocity across narrow streets and built-up roads in places like north and west Belfast.

Because they speak a truth about the futility as well as the immorality of paramilitary armed campaigns, past, present and future.

Remember, too, that a young Filipino family was almost wiped out in west Belfast just over a year ago when an RPG-style warhead missed a passing armoured police patrol and struck their car without detonating.

No matter how many warheads struck police, or Army, vehicles, causing death and horrific injuries, no matter how upgraded and sophisticated these weapons became during the conflict, the secret war of the shadows always ensured those firing such weapons could never win and, in the end, it was/is the primacy of politics that won through.

No matter how many times recurring IRAs, UDAs, or UVFs, fetishised weapons like these, the carnage they resulted in did not achieve the goals of those who deployed them on the streets.

It was people power, not weapons, that won through in the end.

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