The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Hughes No Longer Toes The Provo Line

Former IRA hunger striker Brendan Hughes is angry with his one-time brother-in-arms, most particularly Gerry Adams and the 'Armani suit brigade'

Niall Stanage • Sunday Tribune, 17 December 2000

Brendan Hughes looked out onto the Falls Road. A man sitting in a car opposite the safe house had aroused his suspicions. Hughes asked someone from the area to check him out. When the local approached, the man drove hurriedly off.

Moments later, British troops swarmed through the door, pumped up with adrenaline, shouting, jostling. They were soon exultant. They had captured not just Hughes but two of his senior colleagues in the Belfast IRA. One was Tom Cahill, the other Gerry Adams. It was 1973.

A lot of blood has been spilt since then. The lives of Adams and Hughes have diverged to an even-greater extent, too. For the former, the tortuous grind of the peace process has been enlivened by electoral triumph, White House welcomes, the international respect accorded to a burgeoning statesman.

Brendan Hughes gets by on income support. His last job was as a hod-carrier on a building site. We meet in a flat in Divis Tower. The top floor and roof of the complex are home to the British Army -- its observation post has been there for years and, for all the talk of demilitarisation, the army shows no inclination to abandon it.

Hughes is angry. He believes that the republican movement to which he has devoted his life has drifted from its base, betraying its principles and its working class roots. He referred to those in control as "the Armani suit brigade".

Hughes has only recently begun to voice these criticisms openly in the recent past. "There's an old cliché in the republican movement: 'stay within the army line.' That's what I did, but I was making no progress whatsoever," he said.

Even so, his first public pronouncements were circumspect. Now that has changed. The final straw came when Real IRA man Joseph O'Connor was shot dead in Ballymurphy in October.

"When people get into positions of power, and start enjoying the trappings of power, people like Joe O'Connor get killed in the streets," Hughes commented bluntly.

No paramilitary group has accepted responsibility for the killing, and the security forces have declined to say who they think is to blame. Such a convenient silence doesn't wash with Hughes.

"If that's right, then let's have a bloody inquiry, because it means there's a bunch of men running around Ballymurphy killing people and nobody knows who they are."

So Hughes thinks the Provisional IRA killed O'Connor? "I do, yes. I feel disgusted, I feel hurt, and I feel it's a total contradiction of everything Sinn Féin are saying. Everybody knows who done it."

Hughes went to O'Connor's funeral and helped carry his coffin. In the clannish world of Belfast republicanism, it was seen as an important gesture, though Hughes pointed out that he was expressing his opposition to O'Connor being killed, not support for the Real IRA.

"Why didn't Gerry Adams go to his funeral?" he asked. "He was one of his constituents. Joseph O'Connor was a republican who was shot."

As allegation and counter-allegation flew in the wake of the killing, mainstream republicans mounted pickets on the homes of Anthony McIntyre and Tommy Gorman, two non-aligned dissenters. Hughes was not impressed.

"Anthony McIntyre and Tommy Gorman came out with a totally honest appraisal of the situation and they were picketed. I see paranoia [within] the leadership; anybody who criticises must be condemned, there must be no debate, 'we must not be questioned'. We have something that is almost fascism developing out of this, and that is scary."

Disturbed by the anger he had seen among young Real IRA supporters at O'Connor's funeral, Hughes also realised that a full-blown feud between RIRA and the Provisionals was a possibility. He and veteran Republican Billy McKee offered their services as intermediaries.

Word soon came back from the Provos that Hughes was "not acceptable". It was the most pointed of snubs.

"I have spent 30 years of my life in this struggle," he said. "I know what I wanted 30 years ago, and I don't see anything close to it at the moment. I just see the movement which I spent my life in becoming part of the corrupt, rotten regime which we tried to destroy."

Does he feel betrayed?

"I do, yes."

Anyone close to the current leadership seeking to disparage Brendan Hughes will not have an easy task. Very few members of the IRA have such a dramatic record of activism as the man known as 'The Dark'.

Hughes was approached to join 'the movement' in 1969. He made swift progress through the ranks and was soon one of the senior IRA men in his area. Asked if he was Belfast commander of the IRA, he replied, "So they say," and smiled.

He went on the run in the city in 1970. It was a chaotic time. "On a normal day in the 71-72 period, you would have had a call house [a safe meeting place] and you might have robbed a bank in the morning, done a float [gone out in a car looking for British soldier] in the afternoon, stuck a bomb and a booby trap out after that, and then maybe had a gun battle or two later that night."

During the same period, Hughes survived an attempt on his life by British soldiers. He still bears a bullet scar on his forearm.

When Hughes arrived in Long Kesh in 1973, after his arrest with Cahill and Adams, he thought his war was over. Instead, he soon escaped, rolled up inside a mattress which was left out as rubbish. The bin lorry which served the camp, unknown to its driver, took Hughes to freedom.

Hughes then became Arthur McAllister, toy salesman. Under this unlikely cover, he travelled around Belfast, meeting other senior republicans and co-ordinating activities.

He knew it couldn't last. It didn't. He was arrested again, convicted of possession of firearms and explosives, and sentenced to 15 years. He was sent back to Long Kesh. The process of criminalisation had now begun: the H-Blocks were opened in 1976. In 1977, following the release of Gerry Adams, Hughes became O/C (officer commanding) of the republican prisoners. When he was moved from the old, POW-style compounds to the new jail, he refused, as others had also done, to don the prison uniform.

The blanket protest gave way to the dirty protest. Still there was no sign of special category status being reinstated. In the autumn of 1980, Hughes decided the only option was hunger strike. On 27 October 1980, he refused food, as did six other prisoners.

"The first day I went on hunger strike, I was still in this shitty cell. But I remember thinking to myself that night, 'the cell doesn't look that bad'. Because that is the day you start to die. After awhile you can actually smell your body wasting away."

By 18 December, negotiations were at a critical point. But Seán McKenna, one of the hunger strikers, was close to death. Believing that the prisoners' demands had been met, Hughes called the strike off. He still holds the view that the prison authorities then sabotaged the agreement.

A second hunger strike started. Ten men died. In the years after their deaths, most of their demands were conceded. Hughes was released from the H-Blocks in 1986, when he once again became active in the republican movement.

The trauma of the period left a deep mark: "I blamed myself for years," Hughes said. "I used to believe that if I had let Seán die, that would have ended it, which would have stopped 10 men dying. During one period I was almost at the point of jumping off a bridge."

Hughes feels that the apparent abandonment of traditional republican objectives by the current leadership casts a shadow over the sacrifices made by him and others: "I don't think it's been worth it," he said. "If someone had told me 20 years ago, you're going to go to jail, you're going to get tortured, you're going to go on hunger strike, you're going to watch loads of men dying to get this......I'd have told them to forget it."

So much for the past. Where does Brendan Hughes think republicanism should go from here? He is unequivocal about the fact that a return to armed struggle is not an option. "The most important thing at the moment is truth. The next most important thing is that people should be allowed free speech. The third objective is to force republicanism to broaden the base of debate," he said.

Hughes tries to keep his disagreements with the current leadership on an ideological level, but it is impossible to expunge personal factors from the equation. If one wanted evidence that the personal really is political, republicanism provides it. It's there in Hughes' own words when he talks of the "major problems" encountered by people trying to come to terms with the suffering they endured (or inflicted) during the conflict.

"There are many people who have gone through this whole struggle and have gone off their heads. Kieran Nugent, one of the first blanket men, finished up with people calling him a water rat, drinking wine at the side of a river. Loads of others have just died off," he said.

There is one note of personal bitterness sounded by Hughes, too. It goes back once again to ties of friendship. It goes back to Gerry Adams. Hughes believes that eventually his old comrade was using him only to further his (Adams') own agenda.

He recalled one period in the 1980s: "I was being trailed all over the country with him at that point. He was building up an electoral base. But I didn't know that. I was just Brendan Hughes, the famous 'Darkie' Hughes who had escaped from jail and who'd been on hunger strike. My reputation was being used."

Adams and Hughes last met about three months ago. It wasn't a pleasant experience: "He was asking me questions about my getting publicity, talking about the 'Armani suit brigade' and so on. And he was saying things about the people I was associating with -- that I had got myself into bad company and I should get myself out of it. It was an attempt to censor me through friendship. But it was so ridiculous! If Gerry had said that to me 20 years ago, I'd have f*cked him a right!"

Yet, for all that, an old black and white photograph still hangs in Hughes' living room. Two men. Long hair in a Long Kesh cage. Big smiles. Arms around each other. Brothers-in-arms. Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes. "The reason I keep that there is it reminds me what it used to be like," said Hughes. "We were 100% into it. One hundred percent."




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles


17 February 2007

Brendan Hughes
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