Monday, February 18, 2008

Former IRA hunger striker Hughes dies

A former IRA hunger striker who fell out with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams over the peace process has died.

Brendan 'The Dark' Hughes, once one of Belfast's most feared IRA gunmen, died after a short illness aged 59.

A member of the IRA from the start of the Troubles in 1969 he was involved in a number attacks on the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary and also robberies.

Brendan Hughes photographed in Long Kesh prison
Brendan Hughes photographed in Long Kesh prison

He joined the Provisional IRA when it broke away in 1970 from the Official IRA.

In 1973, he was arrested along with Gerry Adams and Tom Cahill after the British Army raided a house on the Falls Road. They were detained in Long Kesh, which would later become the Maze Prison.

Six months later he escaped in a rolled-up mattress in a refuse lorry and fled over the Border.

In the Republic, Hughes assumed a new identity, Arthur McAllister, and returned to Belfast pretending to be a toy salesman. He lived in a house in the affluent Malone area of the city and for five months believed to have been the Provisionals' Belfast brigade commander.

After five months, however, his new identity was rumbled and the Army raided the house in Myrtlefield Park.

In 1977, Hughes was transferred to the H-Blocks where he became the Officer Commanding of the IRA prisoners in the Maze. Republican inmates were engaged in a protracted battle of wills with the jail authorities and British government, insisting they were prisoners of war refusing to wear uniforms and staging a blanket protest.

After fellow prisoners rejected a suggestion from Hughes that they should wear the uniforms and subvert the system from within, he ordered in 1978 an escalation of their campaign with a no wash protest.

Known as the dirty protest, the prisoners refused to leave their cells to go to the toilet and later refused to empty the chamber pots they were provided with. They eventually ended up smearing their own excrement on the walls of their cells on Hughes' orders.

Two years later, the dispute escalated again when the prisoners decided to go on hunger strike. Hughes and six other prisoners - Raymond McCartney, Leo Green , Tom McFeeley, Sean McKenna, Tommy McKearney and Irish National Liberation Army inmate John Nixon - started to fast.

Two weeks later in Armagh women's jail, three prisoners joined the hunger strike.

The hunger strike lasted 53 days after republicans believed they had struck a deal with the authorities.

Hughes called the hunger strike off as Sean McKenna was on the verge of death.

Bobby Sands, who had been a close aide of Hughes, took over as Officer Commanding in the Maze Prison. When republican disillusionment with the prison authorities intensified, Sands, who would become the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, ordered a second hunger strike in 1981 in which he and nine other prisoners died.

In 1986 Hughes was released from prison and became active again in republicanism.

However in the years after the 1994 and 1997 IRA ceasefires and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, he became increasingly disillusioned with the direction of Sinn Féin. In interviews he dismissed Mr Adams and the leadership as 'the Armani suit brigade' and accused them of betraying core republican principles and their working class roots.

Mr Adams paid tribute to Hughes, despite the reported rift. "Brendan was a very good friend and comrade over many years of struggle," he said. Mr Adams insisted that, although Hughes disagreed with the direction he had taken in recent years, he still held him in high esteem.

"Brendan will be missed, not least by his family, but also by the wider republican family with whom he dedicated such a large part of his life in furtherance of Irish republican goals," he said. "He was my friend."

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