Brendan Hughes: An Irish Republican to the End

Updated on August 7, 2019
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The author is a QUB Political Science honours graduate, a political analyst and has written on a variety of related issues.

The late Brendan Hughes, known locally as 'the Dark' due to his swarthy complexion, is an iconic figure for contemporary Irish Republicans. In particular, he is notable among Republicans who are opposed to the Good Friday Agreement and the now predictably defunct Stormont mini-parliament. The famous events of Brendan Hughes' life as an Irish Republican activist, hunger striker, and IRA commander in Belfast and within the IRA prison command structure, are well documented online and in the book Voices From the Grave, based on an oral history project. All accounts of Brendan Hughes' life attest to his working-class Socialist worldview, intertwined with his dedication as a Provisional IRA leader, who led from the front during military operations.

In his last years of life, he was effectively the conscience of working-class Provisional Irish Republicanism. Brendan Hughes, both in latter life and on his death bed, rejected what he called the 'Armani suit brigade' of the Provisional movement leadership's increasingly neoliberal political trajectory. He ended his days living in a small, one-bedroom public housing flat in Divis Tower, West Belfast. According to Brendan Hughes, during his last few years of life, a clique of his former comrades were busying themselves by building up extensive property portfolios as slum landlords, preying upon the working-class people he and others once defended with their lives. It would have been a heartbreaking vista for Hughes to contemplate.

Mural to Brendan Hughes
Mural to Brendan Hughes

Brendan Hughes relayed to a close friend of his on release, from his 15-year sentence in Long Kesh prison, where he nearly died on hunger strike, that the only work he could get was as a laborer for a building sub-contractor, paying the exploitative wage of £20 per week. He stated that he tried to convince his co-workers to begin a strike for better conditions and a living wage.

Unfortunately, such was the grip of poverty in West Belfast and the size of the available unemployed labor pool, that many workers were terrified by the power of the employer. Later one of the foremen was reported to have offered Hughes a raise of £5, on condition that he did not tell his co-workers. However, Brendan Hughes said that he permanently withdrew his labor, while telling them to 'stick their £5 raise.'

It is worth noting, that even in those relatively recent times, well-known building contractors, who also owned pubs, were still illegally involved in the practice of paying their West Belfast workers their weekly wages in one of their many pubs. This was a practice that Jim Larkin, the founding Father of Irish Trades Unionism, had called a successful industrial strike over in the early years of the last century and effectively had the practice outlawed.

It has been alleged by Hughes and others that in the last days of Brendan Hughes' life, his home in Divis Tower Block was bugged, not by MI5 (although they undoubtedly had an interest too), but by former comrades in the Provisional IRA, eager to learn details of the recorded interviews that he made for researchers from the Boston oral history project. The taped interviews detailed many of Hughes' actions in his unit of the IRA, from D Company, based in the Lower Falls area of West Belfast. The ultra-sensitive nature of the taped interviews related to the fact that the Provisional IRA's D Company in the early 1970s was under the overall command of the former President of Provisional Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams.

It has been said that Hughes' former close comrade, Adams, no doubt feared any revelations that could put the brakes on his path towards political respectability. The taped interviews made by Brendan Hughes and Loyalist leader, David Ervine, have formed the basis of Ed Moloney's book Voices From the Grave and the proposed television documentary of the same name.

In the balance of fairness, it must be said that Ed Moloney, author of Voices From the Grave, has a long hostility to Irish Republicanism, both before and post-ceasefires. Brendan Hughes friend and researcher for the Boston oral history project, Anthony McIntyre, has a deep-seated, almost pathological grudge against Adams, in particular, and Sinn Féin, in general. Many will say with this antipathy is well-grounded in fact, following McIntyre and his family's alleged intimidation from their West Belfast home and further attacks on their new home in Leinster by a flock on Adamsite loyalists.

On a personal level, while it would be fair to say that Anthony McIntyre and I share different worldviews, Anthony has been one of the few who has afforded me a platform for my political views and has always been refreshingly honest in our correspondence.

The Disappeared

Included in the Boston oral history project were revelations that it was allegedly a former Sinn Fein leader who ordered the abduction, execution and secret burial of Irish civilians and Provisional IRA members, who have become known as The Disappeared. The Disappeared included widowed mother of ten, Jean McConville, who was allegedly found guilty of passing information on IRA movements in the Lower Falls. It has been revealed in Voices From The Grave that Mrs. McConville had been allegedly passing low-level data on Provisional IRA movements via a secret radio transceiver, supplied to her by the British Army on two separate occasions. There is little doubt she was a victim of British Military Intelligence targeting a vulnerable woman, knowing what fate would befall her when discovered.

Allegedly, a special unit of the Provisional IRA, nicknamed "The Unknowns" carried out the majority of the executions and secret burials of the so-called-Disappeared. This special unit was then allegedly under the direct, personal control, of Gerry Adams and was at that time reportedly headed up by a west Belfast PIRA member, Pat McClure. McClure later emigrated to and subsequently died in Canada. Brendan Hughes was quite adamant that the secret Provisional IRA unit, the Unknowns, were Adam's personal squad.

Gerry Adams had always maintained that he had been in Crumlin Road Prison when Mrs. McConville was abducted and secretly buried. This version of events was disputed, according to the taped interviews of Hughes who maintained that Adams ordered her disappearance, to avoid the negative propaganda of publicly executing a widowed mother of ten young children. What is, without doubt, the cynical recruitment of a highly vulnerable woman as an agent, issuing her with a transceiver handset, by the British Army, knowing full well that the Provisional IRA had already found her with a previous radio transceiver, used to pass intelligence of IRA activity and weapons movements to the local British Army fortified barracks. On the first occasion, Jean was given a pardon by the local Provisionals, due to her circumstances but the British Army would have been only too aware they'd handed her a death sentence, with the second transceiver.

Mrs. McConville's 10 children were made orphans, her oldest child, who was disabled, died shortly after and the rest of the family were split up and then placed in the dubious care of local religious orders. Brendan Hughes, in Voices From the Grave, revealed details of the secret execution of Patrick Crawford, inside Long Kesh prison, supposedly due to allegations that he signed a confession when arrested. Mr. Crawford's secret execution was then made to appear as a tragic prison suicide. Tragically, Crawford spent his juvenile years in the 'care' of the De La Salle Order, ending up in St Patrick's Training School, a kind of Borstal for those older boys still held under 'care and protection' orders. St Pats, as it was known, catered for juveniles charged under political legislation and those charged under serious criminal-type offenses. Pedophilia was an open secret there and its practices have come in for serious censure at The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry.

There were few to mourn poor Mr.Crawford's passing or ask questions regarding his death at the time. If true, this was a killing possibly based on some personal spite, as many inmates suffered up to, and over, a week of torture in Castlereagh Interrogation center. Many volunteers signed statements of admission to both their own actions and those of others they had nothing to do with simply to end the constant daily torture, which included threats to have family members murdered by UVF/UDA death-squads, waterboarding, and rape with implements.

This war was to bring about a Democratic Socialist Republic, to fight for the working class!

— Brendan Hughes
Mural of Brendan Hughes
Mural of Brendan Hughes

I measc laochra na nGael go raibh a anam

Brendan Hughes death at an early age, amidst ostracism by many of the Provisional Sinn Fein leadership, was a poignant one. Adams, his long-time comrade, who'd both parted company years previously, had asked the D-Company cultural committee, who supervises memorials and funerals for Provisional IRA former-volunteers, from that area of the Lower-Falls, if he could take a 'lift' of Hughes' coffin, an Irish tradition that, depending on the circumstances, can signify a meeting of minds and, especially on this occasion, the optics would be of great importance if manipulated for political gain.

Brendan Hughes had specifically stipulated that there was to be absolutely no Provisional Sinn Fein involvement in his funeral, with all duties to be carried out by his close friends and family. There is no doubt whatsoever, that in the past that Adams and Hughes had a longterm, highly close, Fidel-Che type relationship. It is said that Adams begged the organizers that day to be given a short time to carry his erstwhile comrade's casket. The rest is history and the media, allegedly tipped-off by the Provisional Sinn Fein leadership descended on Adams holding Brendan Hughes coffin.

However, Brendan Hughes, the urban guerilla fighter, the prison escaper, the Hunger Striker, the IRA Intelligence Officer who bugged the British Army's HQ and later evened-up Republican firepower with his introduction of the Armalite into IRA arsenals will never be forgotten. There are thousands more of his daring exploits. In a recent documentary, made in the 2000s, a former British NCO recalled seeing Hughes armed only with an old 1911 Colt emerging from an alley about to take on an entire Brit foot-patrol. The NCO was asked what he'd do if he met Hughes now, in the days of the ceasefires, he said, perhaps surprisingly, but honorably:

'buy him a pint and talk about how we played 'cat and mouse' with each other!'

Brendan Hughes, Irish Republican and lifelong Socialist's, true epitaph will be truly only written in full when Ireland gains full independence from both London and Brussels, then disestablishes the Robber Barons of Monopoly-Capitalism and Gombeen Men of William Martin Murphy's species.

© 2019 Liam A Ryan


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