Brendan Hughes: A Life In Themes
Lecture by Anthony McIntyre
30 April, 2011, at Conway Mill in Belfast
The Family and Friends of Brendan Hughes’ First Annual Brendan Hughes Debate and Discussion
I doubt somehow if Brendan Hughes would appreciate a crowd of us gathering in his name. He was often the subject of attention but not its seeker. And he was suspicious of many aspects of commemoration culture, thinking that it was the past being manipulated for the purpose of plagiarising authenticity for the present.
These days we see much of commemoration culture. We might genuinely be forgiven for thinking that people are being invited to reflect on the republican past for the purpose of numbing them to the bleak and desolate republican future. No matter how we might spin it comrades Mervyn and Wesley of the PSNI are just hard to swallow. A republican peeler sounds just about as right as a black Ku Klux Klan member. After leaving a bad taste in the mouth, the term republican peeler sort of sticks in the republican gullet.
But that is what is passed of as success these days. It was a success that looked too much like defeat for Brendan Hughes. The political structure that delivered that defeat, the Good Friday Agreement, was abbreviated to its acronym GFA. For Brendan this stood for Got Fuck All. For his ability to see behind the waffle he too got fuck all but abuse from key figures in the movement resentful of his willingness to forthrightly state his position.
Commemorations have always been a feature of republican culture. And they are sometimes the source of dispute. We need merely reflect on recent comments by Phil McCullough in relation to the series of events in March 1971 that culminated in the death of IRA volunteer Charlie Hughes, a first cousin of the man in whose honour tonight’s event is staged. McCullough’s account of the time was challenged by someone from the Official IRA. It is not for me to decide who is right or wrong; the Official IRA member or Phil McCullough. 40 years after the event exactitude may be beyond the memory skills of most people. But in defence of both parties to the dispute, if I understand them correctly, it can be said that they were arguing over events of the past rather than interpreting those events so that they might fit into a different era altogether.
There is no reason not to continue with commemorations even if the circumstances in which activists died remain disputed. Arguments about this or that based on what is remembered from the staccato of gunfire or the thunder of explosions are par for the course and do not in themselves detract from the integrity of those who died. But the republican dead should be remembered in terms of what they fought and died for. They should not be weaved into a current project which they knew nothing about, and at the time of their death would not have recognised as bearing the slightest resemblance to republicanism. Can any one name a single republican volunteer who died during the war thinking that Stormont was a good idea never mind serving in the British micro government there? Many people who were republican activists have since come to the conclusion that being part of the Stormont coalition is a good idea. But the point being made here is not whether Stormont is bad or good per se, simply that it did not figure in the considerations of republican volunteers who felt it better to send a car bomb into the building rather than a politician.
It is the weaving of the republican dead into a narrative that they neither knew nor anticipated that devalues commemorations. The dead are not being remembered but used.
Another aspect of commemoration culture, by no means restricted to Ireland, is that the eulogies to the person being remembered depict them in such a light that they resemble less and less what they actually were. In death they have become something else. It is the equal and opposite of what the propaganda of those we term ‘the other side’ does. The dead are deified by their one side and denigrated by the other. The average punter is left to wonder if two separate people are in fact being honoured.
In all of this we can’t be responsible for what the other side does. We are responsible for what we do. So to portray Brendan as something he was not would be a disservice to a man who while a larger than life republican walked the road with absolutely no air and graces. He certainly didn’t feel he was larger than the people he met on the street, in the pub or at the various events he attended.
A proud man he was certainly not a vain one. He had reason to had he chosen. A handsome devil oozing charm he had no shortage of people seeking him out. One night as we left a ship in Liverpool the British police stopped us and talked to him for almost an hour. At the end they asked for his autograph. Cops usually get you to sign bits of paper for other reasons but not that. Stand with Brendan in a pub and you were certain never to have his undivided attention. Somebody always came along. He once humorously told me he welcomed the smoking ban in Dublin pubs. It permitted him a chance to escape outside for a cigarette if the pub bore gripped him.
In truth he had time for the ordinary people and was as attentive to their concerns when they spoke to him as he was to the concerns of Turkish people he spoke with on the streets of London who were staging hunger strikes in support of political prisoners in Turkish jails.
There was a Brazilian archbishop I would sometimes talk to Brendan about while in the H Blocks Dom Helder Camara of Recife and Olinda. He championed the cause of the poor and downtrodden. In speaking of Helder Camara his editor Jose De Broucker described him in terms that remind me today of Brendan Hughes:
The way Dom Helder spends his days is no mystery. They are completely available to others. To all and sundry, great and small,l by appointment or unannounced. He listens, he advises. He listens, he gives a decision. He listens, he helps. Unfailingly present, available, attentive.
It was this sense of his own ordinariness that set him apart. An ordinary man who, when extraordinary circumstances demanded it, rose to the challenge. And as was his style he never had the attitude of ‘follow me I am right behind you.’ Brendan led from the front.
Republican dead meant a lot to Brendan Hughes. One Sunday morning a number of years back, just across the road from where we sit, he was in tears at the opening ceremony of the Falls commemorative garden. He knew the sacrifices the people named there had made. He felt it all the more heavily because he truly believed they had been short changed. The measure they gave was most definitely not the measure they got. He greeted the journalist Suzanne Breen ‘to his threadbare flat in Divis Tower, “Welcome to my cell. Sometimes, I’ve sat here crying for a week. I think of all my comrades suffering and I don’t even want to go out. You never really leave prison.”’
Nor was he sectarian or selective in his memory of the republican dead. His poignant piece written for the Blanket journal on the death of Official IRA volunteer Patricia McKay, was a clear acknowledgment that the IRA he belonged to did not have a monopoly on either resistance or suffering.
So while we commemorate Brendan Hughes by staging this event in his name it is important not to turn him into a cult figure; something we can rest assured he would have resented. He did not seek it in life and gave us no reason to believe he would relish it in death. In a world where we cannot dispute the existence of public heroes most of us prefer to be anonymous cowards. Brendan was different from all of that. He was an anonymous hero. He preferred the background but not in the sense of the sinister string puller. He went about his business for the most part anonymously. His was the world of the ordinary punter. For the most part the media sought him out. Yet when it came to it and there was something he wanted to say he did not hesitate to step up to the plate and say what he thought needed to be said.
But in keeping with his own sense of himself it is important to recognise how little the cultic figured in his outlook. He made his mistakes and was unafraid to discuss them. And he got things wrong. Yet there are some who honour him but who out of fear of giving his critics a stick to beat him over the head with are reluctant to admit that Brendan was what he was; an ordinary guy capable of erring. He wasn’t some divinity, the result of the only virgin birth in Ireland. If he got things wrong he got them wrong. But unlike his detractors his mistakes were honest mistakes.
In Voices From the Grave by Ed Moloney Brendan’s account of two jail experiences has been challenged. In one instance his version of events was plain wrong, and verifiably so. He got things back to front. He incorrectly recalled that the IRA volunteer Jimmy Dempsey was expelled from the cages by the then IRA leadership over a matter of internal discipline. The real version is that Jimmy Dempsey was part of the IRA team that was ordered by the leadership to enact the expulsion of another man. Brendan mixed it up. It happens.
In the case of the late Davy Morley a former camp O/C, Brendan’s insinuation that Morley was on the take in relation to prisoners’ welfare money has been challenged by the late man’s family. They cite documentation of the time which would suggest otherwise. While it is impossible for me to be as definitive about this as I can be about the case of Jimmy Dempsey, where the facts are clear and do not rely on interpretation, there is no reason to jump at the family of Davy Morley and shout Ya Boo Ya Boo, the Dark was never wrong. We need to acknowledge that aspects of Brendan’s account are open to challenge. And those who wish to challenge should feel free to do so. When Brendan opposed infallibility he was aware of his own fallibility and would have been hostile to any attempt to make a god out of him, a man. A great man without doubt but a man none the less.
Mistakes like this are par from the course when events of many years ago are being relayed. Gerry Adams claims to have been singing songs in jail that had not yet been written. And in Danny Morrison we find the eminently plausible defence of Brendan. In defending both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness against journalists who had marked up for ridicule memory lapses on the part of both men, Morrison approvingly quoted the novelist Karl Greenfield: “A falsehood can be deposited in the brain and reinforced almost as easily as a true-life experience. Memory is fallible, we all acknowledge that.” Morrison then went on to criticise the notion of ‘no concession to human fallibility.’
Our understanding of history, any history, all history, is best served when the mosaic that it seeks to bring into focus shows not only the patterns and consistencies but also the blemishes, discolorations and frailties. As such it should not be the task of Brendan’s friends and comrades to protect him from error. He was an IRA volunteer of great stature but also like everyone in the IRA, a fallible one. He was not a pope with the self proclaimed power of infallibility. And in that regard the old words of the French writer Voltaire spring to mind: ‘We owe respect to the living. To the dead we owe only truth.’ And the truth about Brendan Hughes engenders its own respect.
Our memory of Brendan Hughes should never be allowed to become the cult of Brendan Hughes.
One truth that needs to be addressed at the outset is the reason behind Brendan’s very conscious, very deliberate decision to leave behind his testimony. It was not the ramblings of an ill man. If he was sick at the time he gave his interviews to Boston College it was sick at the guff, gobbledygook and jabberwocky that he had listened to for years on end.
It has been said by some that he should have vented his views when alive. The fact is that Brendan wanted his account out long before he died. It took an enormous amount of persuasion from both myself and Ed Moloney to have him stay his hand. There are indeed those who have difficulty in accepting this as a plausible explanation feeling instead that there was an eagerness on the part of both Moloney and myself to publish and be damned if what was published would make uncomfortable reading for Sinn Fein. Brendan is dead and is not here to clarify one way or the other. But Richard O’Rawe shall verify. He too was advised not to publish. It was advice he ignored. We are much better for that.
Brendan was persuaded to stay his hand on the strength of an undertaking given that his testimony would at some point be published with his consent; that the storm he would face from maddened critics if he went public would deter others from doing likewise. In fact in some ways it was his persistence in wanting to tell his story that helped fuel the Boston College project. It powerfully demonstrated a willingness on the part of activists to provide counter narratives to what had become the conventional wisdom of the peace process. It would allow future generations of republicans to better understand their history. Due to Ed Moloney having approval to publish it also allowed those who fought the war to see matters in a light that perhaps others in authority would rather never see the light of day.
Even after he had completed his work with Boston College he returned to the theme of publishing. On numerous occasions he asked for it to be done. At one point he was provided with a series of magazines and books which chronicled the early years of the conflict which would help him structure his account. At each step of the way caution was advised. As it worked out there was nothing published.
This nonsense that he lacked the courage to speak publicly while alive and face the wrath of his detractors is a myth that needs nailed. Brendan Hughes felt there was an obligation to get it out while he was alive.
There appear to have been two main influences in Brendan’s life, his father and Gerry Adams. ‘I think all my life, my father was my hero … He devoted his whole life to bringing his children up and I believe he did a very good job’.
The influence of his determined republican socialist father endured, while that of Adams waned although it would be wrong to say that the values once espoused by Gerry Adams did not remain with Brendan long after Adams himself had discarded them. He said of Adams that:
I believed 100 per cent in Adams. I believed in his leadership, I believed in his direction, I believed almost everything that he would have said to me. I went along with it and believed in it. … if Gerry had told me that tomorrow was Monday when I knew it was Sunday I would have thought twice that maybe it was Sunday because he said it. Now if he told me today was Friday even though it was Friday … I’d call him a fucking liar … I loved him. I’d have taken a bullet for Gerry. I probably should have put one in him.
I think he meant a bullet!
Brendan at no point felt that putting a bullet in Gerry Adams was a solution to the dilemma. He would have found it abhorrent that anyone would consider such a course. Had he lived I am in no doubt that he would have found the petrol bomb attack on the home of Sinn Fein member Mitchel McLaughlin an abomination no republican could be proud of. In his comments on Adams Brendan was making a play with words. With an artist’s licence he was underscoring the gulf that developed between himself and his one time closest comrade. And sadly in many ways, it served to emphasise the destructive aspect of politics; good friendships can be destroyed by them.
There is little to be gained in going from an A to Z chronological tour of the life of Brendan Hughes. The knowledge is out there. Instead a number of themes will covey to those who are interested what was the essence of the man.
Time to throw some light on the Dark.
Theme 1: The IRA
In reading bits and pieces by way of preparation for tonight’s talk I came across the observation that ‘Brendan Hughes was there at the very beginning, at one of the places where the Provisionals first saw the light of day’. It was a reference to the first authorised shots fired by the IRA in August 1969 in defence of St Comgall’s School not far from where we gather this evening.
His IRA odyssey was without question one of the more fascinating to emerge from the war. There was a republican history to Brendan Hughes. His father had IRA form. He had a romantic affection for the IRA but as with so many others his actual participation was event-induced. He half described himself as a reactionary, a term often used in the early 1970s by volunteers, who in explaining their motivation sought to refer to their actions as a response to acts of British or unionist repression.
Most of us at that time did not have a great deal of political ideology. It wasn’t until late that we actually began to learn what republicanism meant. We were motivated by the fact that Catholic homes and streets had been burned down … there wasn’t a great desire on our behalf to be shooting British soldiers.
He defended the Falls against armed loyalist and state force attacks in August 1969 and was later sworn into the IRA by Joe Cahill. He was involved in the famous armed resistance by D Company to British military invasion in July 1970, a key event in profiling of the IRA. The British were seeking to take weapons which only a week earlier were central to the defence of the Short Strand from loyalist attack. With that defence the era of IRA standing from I Ran Away had been obliterated.
He came under the influence of Gerry Adams during riots in Ballymurphy. This was when he first realised the strategic talents of the man he would wage war alongside. He was part of the IRA team led by Charlie Hughes that came under attack from an Official IRA resentful that they had been upstaged by the new Provisional IRA. He travelled to New York to get weapons and to Glasgow to obtain explosives. He helped organise the London bombings. He led the company, the battalion the brigade.
He was the operational commander on the ground on the day of the Bloody Friday bombings. He was the volunteer tasked with breaking the 1972 truce in Lenadoon. His IRA life led to him being involved in the the phenomenon of the disappeared although his role was more in line with that of the IRA operator rather than the Machiavellianism that was involved in deciding the fates of those to be hidden without trace. He would describe the strategy of disappearing as ‘totally totally wrong.’
When he took over the reins of the IRA in Belfast after his escape from Long Kesh the operations immediately stepped up. And during his short spell as Belfast IRA leader he uncovered the opening moves towards a ceasefire with the British which was a softening up exercise on the IRA. ‘I knew there was a conspiracy but I just couldn’t pin it down because I was trying to keep the war going; that was my main objective.’
On recapture he was the O/C of Crumlin Road jail in 1974 and led the riot there. He subsequently led the hunger strike on the same wing after the screws locked it down. He was the IRA leader of the Long Kesh cages prior to assuming leadership of the famous blanket protest. He also led the 1980 hungers strike. After the 1983 escape he was asked to take over the leadership of the prison for a third term but he declined.
Part of the process of softening up the IRA was to have the organisation turn in on itself and self implode. In Crumlin Road Prison Brendan was one of those leaders targeted in a British military organised poison plot aimed at creating paranoia and a debilitating mistrust. Along with Gerry Adams and Ivor Bell he helped rescue the IRA from the jaws of defeat and put in place a long war strategy. During the early days of that initiative the IRA almost lost him to the ranks of the INLA, so disillusioned had he become with the truce leadership and its sectarian strategy of targeting the Protestant community. After ten Protestant workmen were lined up and killed in South Armagh he wrote to the leadership appealing to it to abandon its strategy of sectarian killings. He went as far as to advocate shooting the Belfast leadership but was hauled back to his senses by Ivor Bell and Gerry Adams.
On his first day out after almost 13 years in prison he reported back to the IRA and was quickly on its GHQ staff. He had done a major tour of the six counties and was of the view that the IRA was not ready for a major push. His military strategic understanding of complex operations led him to the judgement that it was much too early to be advocating operations on the scale of Loughall. Such advocacy made him suspicious. As someone heavily involved in the IRA strike against the British military intelligence in the Four Square Laundry enterprise his eagerness to rush in was tempered by a more senior leadership element. Yet he found the same element pushing the so called Tet Offensive when it was obvious to him that that the IRA was not ready. He strongly considered the possibility that sabotage may have played a part; that the IRA was being pushed into operations for which it was not ready in a bid to ensure it would not survive the ordeal. Consequently the British secured its biggest military success against the IRA volunteers in the field taking out eight in one operation. He concluded that the capacity of the IRA was being sabotaged to make way for the peace process. His evaluation: ‘I suspect now because of the situation that we are involved in now that there might have been intent as well to bring about a disaster’
He led the security department but quickly realised that security of the IRA was not almost at the forefront of that particular department’s mind. With Scappaticci batting for the British, the Dark’s appraisal was hardly wrong. His experience with the security department was the end for him. He felt he could trust no one and declined to go back to Belfast for the purpose of cleaning it up.
Writing in the Observer in 2000 he was clear that the IRA had lost the military war but questioned whether it was necessary for it to lose the political war as well. His sense of an IRA losing its way was compounded by the violent attempt to suppress rival republican groups. He complained that ‘when people get into positions of power, and start enjoying the trappings of power, people like Joe O’Connor get killed in the streets,” Calls for the IRA to be disbanded angered him. He told Suzanne Breen of the Sunday Tribune that he thought the Catholic Church not the IRA should be disbanded.
He had a sense of real pride about his involvement in the IRA and was deeply hurt by former comrades who behaved as if there was something shameful about having served in its ranks. He viewed it as a turning of the back on everything the IRA had ever done. He had this to say of them ‘it is totally disgusting and a disgrace to all the people who have died.’ He viewed it as an unwarranted passing of culpability for IRA actions to other volunteers not embarrassed by their role.
Theme 2: The Peace Process
Brendan’s views on the peace process have been well documented. He derived no satisfaction from the outcome, believing that none of the questions raised in the course of the republican struggle had been answered. That struggle in his opinion had not been concluded. He told the journalist Suzanne Breen it was a sell out. The outcome was something he claimed he could never have visualised in his wildest dreams. He never deviated from his position that while the lesson of the1975 truce had been learned it had also been forgotten in the peace process. The British had only ever one intention, getting rid of the IRA. Any political outcome after that was secondary to that overriding strategic objective. Unrelentingly he hammered home the point of strategic catastrophe.
Overall, the facade has been cleaned up but the bone structure remains the same. The state we set out to smash still exists … Our experience up to now has been humiliating … We have danced to every tune; broke every promise ever made; pursued all the policies we used to term others “collaborators” for pursuing; and have dressed it all up as something progressive in order to deceive our base. Have we merely proved the old adage that the first casualty of war is the truth?
Much of it he put down to a failure of leadership. He believed that the leadership had abandoned republicanism for personal power. He felt many republicans had ended up becoming indistinguishable from the SDLP.
I think the leadership needs to look at itself and needs to find out, are they playing the Brit’s game here? And I believe they are. I mean going into Stormont, the contradiction of a Republican begging loyalists to go into Stormont … It’s just so hard for me to swallow.
He would draw on a socialist icon of 1916 to make his observation of the leadership.
James Connolly, in 1915 wrote a sarcastic article titled ‘Trust Your Leaders!’ In it he claimed that ‘in Ireland we have ever seized upon mediocrities and made them leaders’. He could just as easily have been writing about 2002 rather than 1915. How can you trust leaders who endlessly tell you one thing and do the opposite?
No surprisingly he was of the belief that republicanism had to be pulled back to the principles of James Connolly, and of Liam Mellows.
I think the whole thing has just been a farce. It never ceases to amaze me how we have allowed ourselves to get into this position where the British control everything here, they still control everything here, the RUC’s still here, the whole structure’s still here, the judiciary is still here … hospitals are getting pulled down, schools are getting funds cut … we find ourselves in a position where Republicans are administering this, and we don’t have any control … How far down the line do we go here? Do we start putting on wigs and joining the judiciary, the British judiciary and start administering British justice in Ireland?
He viewed the power sharing executive as an internal solution which was an arrangement for the prosperous not a solution for the poor. He went further and argued that even a thirty-two county arrangement that would leave the condition of working people untouched would simply not have been worth thirty years of war and death.‘Now we are beginning to understand what the GFA really means. For working class Protestants and Catholics – Got Fuck All.’
He very much read the GFA through a socialist lens. He felt it let down more than just republicanism.
The ruling class still rules and the working class still works and the gap between the two is as bad as ever. Not only are the Brits still here but also are poverty, corruption, inequality, censorship and repression. How things change in order to stay the same. Can it really ever be all over when this is all we have to show for our efforts?
Of course the whisper weasels set out to do him over. They dismissed him as a drunk who had lost all powers to reason. My response to that was simple. If that was the way Brendan thought with a drink in him then I’m having what he’s having and plenty of it. Compare his analysis with that of the sober minds who felt there would be no return to Stormont, no decommissioning, no dismemberment of the IRA, no consent principle, no support for British political policing, no support for widespread informing, no support for republicans being jailed.
Proof of the existence of god! The British must have prayed ‘Lord make our enemies ridiculous’ – and he did.
Theme 3: Armed Struggle
It is instructive to get a sense of Brendan’s perspective on armed struggle. Today there are some republicans intent on carrying on within the physical force tradition. As a volunteer who was at the coalface of armed struggle for so long and who refused to demonise or criminalise those who still persist his views are important.
Commenting on armed struggle in another country he expressed the haunting view that ‘the revolution improved ordinary people’s lives there. It was a waste of time here.’
He realised that armed resistance had run its course. ‘I basically strongly agree that the war in Ireland with the British is over. I believe that the military struggle is over.’
Despite being a focused advocate of armed struggle he did so when he saw it as something other than futile. It was not a fetish with him, something that should be done because it was in our historical genes. Despite his unremitting opposition to the peace process, he told the Sunday Tribune he believed all opposition should be peaceful and armed struggle was pointless. He argued in the Observer that:
While I am not pushing for any military response, our past has shown that all is never lost … I am not advocating dumb militarism or a return to war. Never in the history of republicanism was so much sacrificed and so little gained; too many left dead and too few achievements. Let us think most strongly before going down that road again.
Yet he never lost sight of the fact why the armed struggle was waged in the first place, making the point about the post GFA armed republicans:
If, as some tell us, a united, just and egalitarian Ireland is so close why are there still republicans taking up arms and risking their lives in order to achieve it? Are we going to be part of an administration that tortures and interns them? Where will it end? Twenty years ago this month a hunger strike began in the H Blocks of Long Kesh. Twenty years on there are republicans in prison such as Tommy Crossan. British troops are still on the streets; the RUC are still there, whether Royal Ulster Constabulary or Patten Ulster Constabulary.
Not for him the allegations of treachery that Martin McGuinness in his role as British micro minister made against those who carried out his orders.
He would speak about a democratic republicanism which by necessity can only be unarmed.
He concluded that another generation had been condemned to fighting
Despite the distancing between himself and his former comrade Gerry Adams he was not critical of the Sinn Fein leader for bringing an end to the armed campaign. ‘I don’t condemn him for it I criticise him for the devious way it was all brought about. There were people still dying when they were talking and these people who were dying … should have known the talks were going on.’
Theme 4: Internationalism
There was a strong international dimension to the outlook of Brendan Hughes. His attitude to poverty in South Africa was as much about international solidarity as it was about socialism. ‘Almost exclusively, those who suffered were from working class backgrounds both here and in Britain.’
His visit to Cuba with his brother Terry fulfilled a lifelong dream. He makes a facetious observation about the time in Cage 11 when he shared a cube with Gerry Adams. Brendan was reading about Castro while Gerry was saying the Rosary. Yet he was not starry eyed about his Cuban experience, and came home complaining about how he found it to be an inegalitarian society behind the socialist façade.
Cage 11 of which he was O/C for a time prior to taking over the camp leadership at the end of 1977 was very much a cage with an internationalist outlook, more than any previous cage I had been in. Documentaries were prioritised, General Gap was standard reading material; there was intense support for the Palestinian cause.
He wrote about Palestine and would turn his hand to activism. If it was driving a bus to Dublin packed with Palestinian supporters or going around London or travelling around hunger strike sites in London where people were fasting in support of Turkish hunger strikers he would turn his hand to it.
He compared the shaving of the beards of captured Afghan fighters with the experience of the blanket prisoners – an exercise in humiliation. He felt hurt when of the movement he fought in for so long failed to do enough to enhance international solidarity towards others experiencing repression.
I was in London a few weeks ago. I was asked over by a group of people, the Kurds and the Turkish people, who are in Turkish prisons. Why I was there was they asked Sinn Féin for support. Thirty two people have died, twelve of them hunger strikers in Turkish jails. Sinn Féin’s response to these people was “we do not get involved in the internal politics of another country”. God help us all. That’s what the response was “we do not get involved in the internal politics of another country”. To me that is a total betrayal.
In London I could see the depth of concern on his face as went from protest to protest, embracing those on hunger strike. Given his own experience it must have been difficult for him. They were so grateful that a legendary IRA hunger striker from the H Blocks would sit in their tents and hold their hands.
There is an interesting vignette to conclude this theme with. On the morning we travelled to Liverpool the strangest of ironies occurred. Brendan couldn’t be rapped out of bed. When I got to the harbour he phoned me wondering what was keeping me. He told me to hold on as he would be straight over in a taxi. The guy driving the bus from the departure lounge to the boat happened to be a former H Block screw. I explained our predicament to him and asked him could he delay something long enough for Brendan to get here. He said to me ‘I’ll make sure the Dark gets that boat.’ He was true to his word. Sometimes the human touch is infectious.
Theme 5: Anti-Sectarianism
Brendan Hughes was adamant about his long history of not subscribing to a sectarian outlook. At the outbreak of political violence in 1969 The Dark referred to the mixed emotions he had as he marched as part of a nationalist mob towards a Protestant enclave in the Grosvenor Road. He was ultimately glad that the Official IRA had stopped it burning the Protestant homes they were intent on torching in response to the same from Loyalists in the Shankill.
Later he would most strongly oppose the IRA’s campaign of targeting the Protestant community. The Whitecross killing of ten Protestant workmen brought him to the verge of leaving the IRA. He was dismayed by the influx of young volunteers like myself to the prisons on charges of sectarian killings, some of whom he had watched leave the prison months earlier, again like myself. He wondered why they left with sectarian ideas in their minds.
Once the protest ended and the republicans were held for a period on the same wings with loyalists Brendan sought to protect elderly Protestant prisoners whom he felt there was no justification for targeting during the campaign for segregation. At one point in H6 a Protestant prisoner who had felt hard done by had joined the Blanket protest. I only ever knew him as Maxie. But Brendan had a real soft spot for him.
On occasion he would find himself open to the charge that he took his experimentation and natural curiosity too far. This led him into a friendship which he was very open about with the Shankill butcher Basher Bates. One tea time lock up we sat together in his cell discussing Bates. He relayed to me how Bates had cried when discussing his activities with Brendan. I was taken aback at the liaison but Brendan explained that it is important to get to the real people behind the ideology, to understand how men are made into monsters.
He believed that the rise of the PUP was a positive development within unionism and on more than one occasion expressed a desire for ex-republican prisoners to encourage links. It was the professed social radicalism of people like Billy Hutchinson and Billy Mitchell that impressed him. When he called for change he said:
And I speak not just about our own community but about the loyalist community also. Ex-prisoners from both and not the politicians can effect some radical change.
In this sense he could be found trying to take republicanism away from its own narrow communal roots which he felt were sectarianism.
Thirty years on, despite our best efforts the sectarian divide still exists. Some say it is beginning to break down now that we have the Good Friday Agreement and a cross community executive at Stormont; that things at long last will begin to look better for the working class. Jolly good show – Hurrah or what old boy?
He clearly did not buy into that.
He summed up his views:
Do the unionist communities have a similar experience? How are their ex-prisoners treated? Would the PUP, which claims to be radical and for the working man and woman, allow those who are nothing better than the slum landlords of the building industry to build their party offices with a grossly underpaid workforce who are not allowed to be unionised? How do those who claim to be socialist within the unionist community resist such exploitation? If there is to be a meaningful debate between republicanism and loyalism, let it begin there rather then with the waffle and nonsense about flags that passes for dialogue up at Stormont.
Theme 6: Humanitarianism
The IRA has long been portrayed as a bunch of ruthless operatives. The people in Britain can be excused, given the type of journalism they were exposed to in the form of the red tops, for thinking that IRA volunteers ate Protestant babies which they washed down with the blood of teenage British soldiers. Yet the Dark shows us something different about the IRA. The journalist Suzanne Breen found that he displayed a compassion not often on display in republican ranks.
Brendan was a determined IRA operative willing to end life in pursuit of IRA objectives. He was open about this and did not pretend never to have been an IRA volunteer inferring that the blood shed by the IRA was the responsibility of others. He stepped up to the plate and was not ashamed about his IRA past. Being unashamed however is not reducible to having no regrets. It is well night impossible to go through a war without regrets, unless of course you are a psychopath or militarist who revels in sating the thirst of the land and warming its heart with blood spilt on the battlefield. Brendan was neither of these.
In his tale about the British soldier whose life he spared:
I stood over him with a .45 aimed at his head. I could have pulled the trigger and sent him to eternity. But morally and emotionally, I wasn’t able to end his life. He was a mere child, so frightened.
Yet Brendan spared him and in later years would in his own inimitable way would reach out to him:
You came here at the direction of your leaders to invade our country. I had more reason to end your life than you ever had to take mine. I do not know you yet I know you so well. The two of us, working class guys thrown in against each other so that others could benefit. You were English and I was Irish – hardly reasons to kill each other. Farewell British soldier. May you and your children live happy lives. I would like to see you again – but not in uniform.
Again we see that same streak of humanity in him when he arrived too late to save a young British soldier abandoned by his comrades.
Most of the kids who died here knew nothing of why they were here. The bulk of them came from poor working class families just like our own. I remember one time in McDonnell Street a young British soldier had been left behind by his foot patrol. He was only 18. I was not at the scene but soon received word that the IRA had captured a British soldier and were holding him captive. In those days we did not have radio communication. By the time I arrived at McDonnell Street the 18 year old soldier was already dead. He had been shot dead by a 17 year old IRA volunteer. I regret to this day that I was unable to stop his death.
And we see it in his account of the 1980 hunger strike when he held a promise he made to the late Sean McKenna.
As the IRA leader in charge of that hunger strike I had given Sean McKenna a guarantee that were he to lapse into a coma I would not permit him to die. When the awful moment arrived I kept my word to him. Having made that promise, to renege on it once Sean had reached a point where he was no longer capable of making a decision for himself, I would have been guilty of his murder
Here we see him applying the perspective of the German theologian Albert Schweitzer who once said ‘humanitarianism consists in never sacrificing a human being to a purpose.’
The deep compassionate essence of the Dark was poignantly summed up in his account of the death of the young Official IRA volunteer Patricia McKay:
She walked out the door and the British Army shot her dead. ‘Such is life,’ Ned Kelly would have said. But I think it is more than that. Life should not have to be that way where our young die to resist injustice. She was just a kid – a kid in the Official IRA, like so many who were with me in the Provisional IRA. And so many kids went down the same path as she. A ‘wee Sticky’, she was our comrade. A beautiful kid, Patricia McKay was her name. Although more than 30 years have passed since she lost her life, I have never forgotten her. She deserves to be honoured like every other volunteer from this community who lost their lives fighting the British Army. Whatever benefits we gained from this war, she as much as any other volunteer paid for them with her life’s blood.
That description more than any other I have always found deeply moving. Dare the British tell us here was a terrorist while lauding their paratroopers and SAS killers as warriors of democracy.
Theme 7: Socialism
Brendan Hughes was much too voluble in his discourse to allow for any misunderstanding of his position on a socialist alternative. His basic starting point was that ‘capitalism is the greatest cheat of all.’
He had an affinity with the working class community. He inherited it from his father who was an ardent socialist without ever having looked at the works of Karl Marx. His outlook was also shaped by his experience in South Africa.
I worked in the galley at the time and I remember looking out the portholes at lunchtime, all these guys set along the deck of the ship with milk bottles full of cold tea and whatever food they could get. And I remember feeling angry, the way these people were treated….if I was never a socialist [before] I certainly became a socialist during that time in South Africa… District Six in Cape Town … had a bigger impact on my thinking as a socialist on reading books or studying revolutionary tactics.
At the same time he was not doctrinaire and like many other republicans was turned off by the endless ranting of the sects. He declined to go to a meeting if they were involved thinking it would be a waste of time. One of the few I do remember him attending he was so glad to get away from that he likened it to his escape from Long Kesh. He called for ‘a socialism that would ignore the tripe talkers and their vanguard party nonsense.’ That did not however inhibit him from publicly endorsing the bona fide socialist Eamon McCann in Derry who was contesting an election on an identifiably socialist ticket.
The Dark drew less on Connolly and more on Mellows. The latter was less doctrinaire socialist than Connolly, a full blown Marxist. As Eoin O Broin points out in a recent book Mellows was better described as a left republican.
I believe the party of the working class is entitled to commemorate the working-class people who died. I believe a party of the middle or upper-class should not be allowed to capitalise on those people’s deaths. Those people died for working-class issues and I believe that the only people who should be allowed to capitalise on that are working-class people who are fighting for working-class issues. I don’t believe the leadership of the Republican Movement, at present, is fighting for working-class issues, or fighting for the issues that these people died for.
He took the view that for thirty years the Republican Movement fought a war against the British to remove them from Ireland and establish a thirty-two county democratic socialist republic which would take control of the wealth of the country and place it in the hands of those who created it – working men and women.
And it comes as no surprise that his socialist perspective would allow him to see beyond the narrow confines of his own community. The working class was much wider than that. He wrote of the new fusion within the political class:
There is a coming together alright. But after reading the unionist Fred Cobain in last week’s Irish News it is not difficult to see how the dice is loaded in favour of the rich. He termed the whole sorry charade up at Stormont a middle class government for a middle class people. I was particularly interested in one aspect of Mr Cobain’s assessment. He claimed that 600 people would die over the course of the next year as a result of poor heating in their homes. The poor and handicapped, be they Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Dissenter are all invited by her majesty’s government at Stormont to come together and huddle as a means of keeping warm. We can rest assured that no one at Stormont will die due to a lack of heat. They might explode due to over eating. Fred Cobain is to be commended for speaking out and allowing us to see that in the years since that day when I stood on the site, little has really changed. Same old ship, just some different hands at the wheel.
For such reasons he was able to appreciate the advice of James Connolly when the 1916 leader opined that Ireland without its people meant nothing to him.
In all honesty, if it were the only way to avoid exploitation and the rule of poverty creators, and if such a thing were possible, I would prefer a six-county democratic socialist republic where the workers would have control of their own destiny, the right to work and security of employment. A republic where it is a crime to exploit workers and where the employment of rogue builders would be banned by sheer morality never mind the law … In other words a society where there is …. Justice.
This would suggest that republicanism for Brendan Hughes was more about socialism rather than nationalism.
The revolutionary socialist direction that I was fighting for has been dropped. All that Sinn Fein have done, all that the IRA has done is become the SDLP… all the things that were important to me, that we fought and died for, mainly the betterment of the working class in Ireland have been dropped.
Theme 8: Hunger Strike
Brendan Hughes led the 1980 hunger strike. As far back as 1981 he told me his dilemma. From day 9 Sean McKenna was having serious doubts about his ability to take the strike to its ultimate conclusion. It was a frank admission by Sean. It left Brendan with some serious thinking. He explained to Sean that if he pulled out the strike would definitely not succeed. He told him that if he remained on the strike he would not have to take it to the end. Brendan remained true to his word.
He later asked me if I thought he was right. My view was simple. I told him he might have been wrong to give Sean the guarantee but once he had given it then he had to honour it. To do otherwise would be tantamount to murder. I asked him how he would feel going through life knowing he had murdered an IRA volunteer. He seemed relieved.
Bur moments of relief from the pangs of guilt over the hunger strike were much too few. He was tormented by guilt over the second hunger strike in which saw ten comrades die:
I was disillusioned and embarrassed … the job was only half done and here were these people like Francis Hughes and Bobby going to finish the job that I had failed to do … I was suicidal. I had a constant clear image of having a gun and just blowing my head off. That went on for a long, long time after the hunger strike and especially during the second hunger strike when men started to die. I mean, it was the worst period of my life. It was even worse than the hunger strike itself. It took me years and years to get over it … I found it very, very hard to live with myself because I felt that possibly I should have been dead rather than the other ten men.
The Dark had been opposed to the 1981 hunger strike. In his own words:
Bobby sent a communication to me that he didn’t see any alternative here except another hunger strike … I fought with Bobby actually over this. I didn’t believe that we should go on a second hunger strike … and it was Bobby’s decision that the second hunger strike take place … It came at too big a cost I think.
Few issues have been more contentious in recent republican cultural history than the management of the 1981 hunger strike. When Richard O’Rawe first emerged with his claim that the leadership prevented a successful outcome to the strike after four volunteers had died he was making a lonely stand. His claim that the leadership had overruled the prisoners’ acceptance of an offer from the British was attacked in the hope that his account could be strangled in the cradle.
O’Rawe stood his ground as his detractors were forced by the sheer weight of evidence to shift position. In his stance O’Rawe had the support of Brendan Hughes. Throughout the second hunger strike he lobbied Bik McFarlane to bring it to an end without further loss of life.
I disagreed with the continuation of the hunger strike. I did not know what was going on in the minds of the people who were allowing this to go on. I do believe that Bik felt really restrained by the powers that be on the outside, the IRA leadership. I believe the IRA leadership … should have and could have done a lot more to ensure that people did not die. And I think that Bik felt that outside did not want him to do that.
He reached the conclusion that ‘not one death was worth those five demands, not one death, never mind ten deaths. He came to the judgment that political reasons kept the hunger strike going.
I believe that was the reason why the leadership on the outside did not intervene, because of the street protests that were taking place, because of the political party that Sinn Fein was building.
If he is right, and there is strong support for his view in the work of Richard O’Rawe, we need to pause and consider this ruthless approach to the management of the hunger strike and compare it to the attitude of Brendan Hughes who stopped the first hunger strike rather than lead an IRA volunteer unwittingly to his death.
Theme 9: Dissent
The outlook of Brendan Hughes was infused with an intellectual restlessness. He was as intellectually capable as those he associated with and at times was prepared to be more intellectually promiscuous than them when in challenging times intellect clashed with tradition. He wittily expressed what he saw as a paradox at the heart of our much vaunted political awareness, saying, ‘if we are the most politically informed population in Western Europe, as we are sometimes told, I don’t know how – because there is never anybody willing to tell us anything.’
In many respects he was ahead of the game. This was evident from two incidents during imprisonment. That he was not simply something that came with the mould was evident when he arrived on the Blanket protest. He immediately saw the dangers inherent in republican activists allowing themselves to be contained by the prison administration. While republicans might have viewed their predicament as segregation Dark saw it as isolation. His first suggestion was to wear the prison uniform and go into the system with the same spirit of resistance that had sustained the men during the arduous protest. No easy suggestion to make to men entrenched in a no-uniform mentality. When this proved a non-starter he realised that if the prisoners were contained it was self defeating to allow what they were protesting about to also be contained. The message of political prisoners had to be put out there. He drew attention to the protest in a novel way: thus emerged the no-wash protest.
When the protests and hunger strikes had concluded the Dark took a radically different approach to the question of segregation than his comrades. While he was not entirely convinced of the merits of his own position he was nevertheless willing to experiment with different ideas on the issue of segregation. Considered by the vast bulk of prisoners as a non-negotiable demand Brendan Hughes argued that if republican prisoners wanted to adhere to the republican ethos insisting on segregation from other prisoners including unionist ones was the wrong way to go. He saw in it an inherent strain of sectarianism.
If we were the organisation we claimed to be, non-sectarian and trying to bring about a united Ireland that involved everybody , I saw a certain contradiction there. If that’s what we stand for, if we’re fighting for a united Ireland, Gaelic and free, and for Protestant and dissenter, why are we pushing for segregation?
Awkward thinking as it is sometimes called, was not something he came to late in republican life as a result of the demonic manipulator who could put negative thoughts in his head as his detractors would have us believe. In the prison in 1975 he was a persistent voice of dissent. He resented the smears of the camp leadership that he and his dissenting colleagues were ‘conspirators … niggers in the woodpile … anti-IRA people’. And he proved unremittingly hostile toward the outside leadership’s urging that the Brownie articles by Gerry Adams be censored. He was alienated from the idea that men should not be allowed to think for themselves feeling ‘there weren’t enough people in the rank and file who would speak up with their opinions.’ He was critical of the attitude prevalent in many volunteers that ‘whatever the leadership said the leadership must be right, and of course that’s not always the case.’
He was a firm supporter of the Adams perspective of a pressing need for a politically educated rank and file so that control could be wrested from the leadership and placed with the volunteers doing the fighting. The problems besetting republicanism in the 1970s, including the sectarianism was:
because the IRA was leadership led and the volunteers were not politically educated … 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 … I think debate has been muffled and censored. I think debate has been unwelcome.
Within the leadership he saw paranoia: ‘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.’
On issues not directly germane to republicanism he had a deeply ingrained suspicion of preaching from on high. In London’s Hyde Park one Sunday morning we paused to listen to a speaker from Nation Of Islam harangue the one or two who stopped to listen to him. The speaker was surrounded by four or five associates each of whom had what was presumably the Koran in their hands. They chanted in unison with their leader each time he made a point against whoever hackled or challenged him. Neither I nor the Dark said anything. We were bemused to be watching this spectacle. Belfast city centre always had its own share of religious nutters, London it seemed was no different.
Brendan came away visible disturbed by what he had witnessed. He spoke for some time about how the people he had just witnessed struck him as fascists. This was well before the Marxist writer David Schweickart argued that fascist was an intellectually sustainable term to describe much of political Islam.
Not only was he hostile to the speaker but to those who echoed him and nodded their heads. He remained throughout his days suspicious of the guru seeking to enlighten from on high. The Dark long suspected that this approach had nothing to do with liberating minds but rather with controlling them.
Believing that the political process has created a class of professional liars which unfortunately contained many republicans he more and more came to the conclusion that it was a duty to speak out. It was a path he chose. He felt there was a loyalty which the leadership deliberately exploited for its own ends. It was essential he believed for republicans not to be shackled by such loyalty but to push the boundaries out further.
And all those last few years I’ve kept quiet. I haven’t said anything through a sense of loyalty to the Republican Movement. … The problem I feel is that republicans are sitting back … And I think they need to be wakened up and it needs to be pointed out to them that as I said in the article, it takes a great deal of pain for me to come to the point where I could put pen to paper and write this. And I do it reluctantly, but I do it through necessity … and I also do it for my comrades who died. ..
He also advised his colleagues to do likewise and not to defer to the authority of leaders. He would have been even more assertive on this than I was. I tended to take the view that there were situations where some within the Provisional movement felt so constrained that speaking out was not a plausible option. What they should do, in my view, if they agreed with those speaking out was not to join the cacophony of backstabbing against them. Brendan was of a view that they needed to do more than that. He felt there was a moral obligation on them to speak out despite the dangers.
unfortunately that’s a risk we have to take. I mean Marian and Dolours would be comrades of mine. Some of the people who would ostracize people like that, or ostracize people like me, I have no time for. Let their petty little minds ostracize right, but anyone who would want to ostracize me I would want to ask them a question…do you agree with everything the republican movement is doing? If they do, then okay, then go away from me, I have no time for you. If they don’t agree, and they don’t say anything … then I think they’re a moral coward. At least Marian has the guts to stand up to and say something … I don’t necessarily agree with everything Marian says, but I absolutely agree with the right for her to say, or anyone else to say what they believe in.
With the late John Kelly he wrote:
those who wish to discuss all matters relevant to republicanism, including an alternative electoral strategy to Sinn Fein’s, must be both free and safe to do so…. We are concerned that in a bid to stifle wider discussion within the republican community, Sinn Fein is pursuing a strategy of threat against dissenting voices. They are disguising their own menace by attributing violent intent to those voices. Such voices are healthy in a republicanism unafraid of critical self-examination. They must be protected against Sinn Fein leadership threats and smears used to undermine their credibility. Let the debate take place and the most honest participants win.
Again and again Brendan Hughes can be found hammering out the message of the vitality of dissent. In that sense he would have been in agreement with the historian AJP Taylor who quipped that if were not for dissenters we would still be living in caves. Nobody would dissent in favour of houses.
In terms of ideas the Brendan while looking very much like a caveman when he led the blanket protest was not someone who lived in an intellectual cave. The Dark was never one to fear the light. As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once observed: ‘The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. ‘ Brendan paid the price but he owned himself.
The Dark described how certain situations are transformed into times when unexceptional people produce exceptional acts. The war in the North was one of those situations and it brought to the fore many people who produced more than their fair share of exceptional acts including Brendan himself.
He decided to commit his thoughts to public accessibility for reasons best outlined in his own words:
History is written by the victors. In this particular case the defeated have a chance to put on record their role and their perspective of this so called victory … its not going to do me any good but I believe its important for later generations when I am dead and gone.
This generation who sit here tonight can rue the fact that he is dead but his words, thoughts, humanity and idealism ensure that he most definitely is not gone.
It was his firm conviction that he had to leave something for those people he summed up in the following terms: ‘the boat is away sailing on the high seas … and the poor people that launched the boat are left behind sitting in the muck and the dirt and the sand.’
In deciding to question the wisdom of where things were going he was attuned to the type of logic expressed by James Thurber who said ‘It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.’ In this case the answers didn’t add up. Brendan had been there, done that and wore the T-shirt with the architects of the peace process to be taken in by any of their strange magic.
An Fear Dorcha, husband, father, brother, grandfather, thinker, friend, comrade – all of these things defined him and the nature of our respective bonds with him. But more than anything else, what brings us all here together in his memory is his role as an IRA volunteer. Brendan Hughes died a republican. Regardless of who was at his bedside when he breathed his last or carried him on his final journey his republican beliefs did not yield. At Roselawn we cremated a republican, an unrepentant Fenian bastard.
Many of us here followed him though the hell of the H-Blocks and came out the other side. Of course the notion of him being followed would have annoyed him. He valued us as comrades not followers. He didn’t want us to follow him but to journey with him in a struggle against injustice. Yet it would not be fitting if I was not to end this talk tonight with a line from the Blanket song so often started by Micky Fitz and joined in by the rest of us on the blanket protest: ‘we’ll follow the old man wherever he wants to go.’
Ride On Brendan.