It was an IRA funeral. It could be no other. Brendan Hughes was an IRA volunteer. The gloves and beret of the IRA adorned his coffin. He did not want a Sinn Fein funeral. He was a political soldier and had little time for politicians of any political party. In the end he got his wish. His old comrades from the IRA’s D Company took charge of his funeral. The volunteers from the battling ‘dogs’ led by the redoubtable Paddy Joe Rice came to claim the body of their most iconic leader and stood guard over him as he stepped into eternity.
It is not a matter of personal opinion that Brendan Hughes hotly opposed Sinn Fein hijacking his funeral as he put it. Having seen so many funerals where he felt the party had bullied and cajoled its way to the front pew he had often spoken on the matter. Frequently I had ribbed him that ‘big Gerry will carry you up the road and tell everybody you sent him a secret message supporting the peace process.’ He took it in good humour but never failed to make the point that the party would have no input into his funeral arrangements. D Company alone would have the honour. Nor would anyone from Sinn Fein be allowed to speak at the funeral unless it was in a personal capacity.
Late last year he had told his family of his intent but acceded to their wishes that when the fateful day arrived no one should be turned away. He was much too understanding a man to want to make things difficult for those he loved most, his family. Large numbers of Sinn Fein members did turn up. Like others there, many of them came to pay respect to a worthy man.
Others most certainly did not. It is hard to imagine that all from the Provisional mourning contingent cared for Brendan in the manner their behaviour at his funeral, coupled with their comments in the press, suggested. The leadership ordered the bugging of his flat some years ago. He found the device but against my advice opted not to go public on it. The man who planted the device was not visible, at least to me, at the funeral, but the man who almost certainly ordered the bugging was there.
Amongst the mourners were those directly responsible for censoring Brendan so that a wider audience would not hear what he had to say. As a former hunger striker and blanket man he was prevented from speaking at a university about his H Block experiences. As an exploited worker his critique of his exploiters was defanged to the point of it being unrecognisable from what he had actually written.
Did the spies and the censors, thought police the lot of them, really turn up at the funeral of Brendan Hughes because they respected him as a person and wished to pay him respect?
Since the funeral much has been written that would lead people to think it was a Sinn Fein event. One journalist wrote that the coffin ‘was carried by Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams.’ All on his own without even the strong shoulders of Simon the Cyrene to assist him? Another named no one but Sinn Fein members out of the thousands in attendance. The photos carried in the press featuring pallbearers were of Gerry Adams or Fra McCann. The prevalent discourse was of a rift healed.
The facts on the ground belie any such interpretation. True, Brendan’s wishes would have been ignored had Sinn Fein got its way. However, its attempts to muscle in were resisted and frustrated by his comrades from D Company at every turn which had mounted a robust defence of its independence in terms of having the right to bury its own dead. The Sinn Fein president was told his status at the funeral would be that of a mourner and not of a dignitary. The party’s proposal to provide one of its politicians to sing during the service was rebuffed.
In what was perhaps the most significant snub to Sinn Fein Brendan had expressly asked for Ivor Bell, the most competent and intelligent of the nine Provisional IRA chiefs of staff, to deliver his funeral eulogy. Bell, however, had taken ill two evenings previously and had been admitted to hospital the morning prior to the funeral.
On learning that Bell would deliver the eulogy Sinn Fein grew tense. The party asked that Gerry Adams be allowed to say a few words. It then suggested that the press would manufacture a major story if both men spoke and that to ward this off Adams should speak alone. The suggestion was rejected.
Bell would have needed to say very little. His appearance alone would have amounted to a serious rebuff of the Sinn Fein leadership. The choice of Ivor Bell was a significant one. It was a statement by Brendan Hughes that he had taken the wrong side in the 1985 internal IRA dispute which saw Bell sidelined in a move that cleared the path of any serious opposition and provided the found on which the peace process was built. Brendan Hughes belatedly acknowledged that Ivor Bell had been right in his prediction that the one thing to emerge from the Adams strategy would be a defeated IRA and a victorious British state.
In the event Dominic O’Neill from D Company delivered the oration. While a touching gesture from an old comrade the political impact was negligible. With Bell’s illness the moment was lost in its passing.
The Sinn Fein leadership did not need Brendan Hughes to legitimise it. But it feared him legitimising anything else. By conducting itself as it did in relation to the funeral it sought to neutralise Brendan rather than respect him. The Sinn Fein president was concerned with public image. The press gave him the boost he craved. At the big political level Sinn Fein came out on top. And on that count he won the day. But he failed to win the heart of the mourners.
At every point of the funeral voices that were highly critical of the Sinn Fein leadership made themselves heard. One mourner later wrote of the Sinn Fein president:
People were very angry & disgusted at his shameless self-promotion over Brendan's death - his issuing a press release over it, pushing his way to the front to carry the coffin in front of all the cameras, getting up in the middle of the mass, and crossing the altar, leaving the chapel in front of the coffin, breaking off and running ahead of the cortege to be in the memorial garden first, trying to put pressure on the family to give the oration, claiming 'the rift had healed' because he carried the coffin …
There would be little point in carrying such a sentiment were it not for the fact that it was echoed throughout the cortege. It captures the common sense of the bulk of people who made up the body of mourners.
Brendan Hughes is now in a state of eternal sleep. But for those who wish to protect his memory and defend the socialist republican values he espoused, his funeral should serve as a grim reminder: we may weep but we dare not sleep.
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