Until recently the sight of Gerry Adams shouldering the coffin of an IRA man
and an outspoken opponent of power sharing at Stormont at that would have
been the cue for outrage from the DUP.
However, last week, when Adams made sure to be filmed carrying the mortal
remains of his old comrade Brendan Hughes, 59, there wasn't a word of
criticism. Even the DUP knew that this was one coffin he had to carry for
the good of the peace process as well as for personal reasons.
His old friend, nicknamed "The Dark" for his Mediterranean looks, had become
one of his bitterest critics. An intelligent, charismatic man who everybody
warmed to, Hughes was, in his last years, haunted by inner demons and
questions about the dubious outcome of the IRA campaign he and Adams had
He had, it was rumoured, made tapes recounting their joint exploits in the
IRA in the early 70s, when Adams was OC and he was Operations Officer of
Belfast Brigade. He had stories to tell about the conduct of the hunger
strike and what he believed was the needless squandering of IRA lives in
misguided attacks which he had warned against in the mid 1980s.
Hughes knew where the bodies were buried. His secrets involved the deaths of
informers, betrayals and blunders by the IRA leadership. He commanded fierce
loyalty and had a nose for those prepared to betray him.
To be filmed with the coffin Adams had to push his way past Real IRA
supporters who wanted to hi jack Hughes legacy, Martin McGuinness was more
He had been embarrassed by Hughes who stated, in the Sunday Times last year,
that McGuinness had authorised a wave of attacks, including the 1997 assault
on Loughgall police station which resulted in the killing of eight members
of East Tyrone IRA in an SAS ambush. It flatly contradicted McGuinness'
claim, under oath at the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, that he had left the IRA in
the early 70s.
Asked about the discrepancy, Hughes, who had opposed the strategy at a
meeting with McGuinness in Donegal, stood by his story, "he will have to
answer that question himself. When people get caught up in lies they have to
continue with the lies."
Hughes caused more embarrassment when he backed Richard O'Rawe, a former
blanketman who wrote a book accusing the republican leadership of prolonging
the 1981 hunger strike for electoral reasons. The Sinn Fein leadership
claimed that O'Rawe, who was PRO of the protesting prisoners, had never
voiced his concerns at the time when it would have mattered.
Hughes intervened in a letter to the press. "I am a former prisoner whom
O'Rawe talked to on a number of occasions about the things that concerned
him and which eventually appeared in his book. I can also state I am not the
only former prisoner O'Rawe has raised the matter with" he said, halting the
smear campaign in its tracks.
"I used to tell him 'Dark, you should write all this down' and he said
"don't worry I have made tapes" said O'Rawe. Sinn Fein has also been making
inquiries about them. Hughes' testimony is hard to argue with for, while he
was onside with the leadership, he was often used as an approved IRA
spokesman to journalists.
For instance, he is the anonymous IRA representative quoted in Martin
Dillon's ground breaking study "The Dirty War". He also appears, under his
own name, in Peter Taylor's documentaries "Brits" and "Provos" and is the
voice behind passages in several other books on the IRA. Having licensed him
to talk in this way, it is now hard for republicans to dismiss what he says
- his story, if it is ever fully told, will be hard to deny.
Hughes was a founder member of the Provisional IRA when it broke away from
the Officials in 1970. He quickly became involved in the almost daily round
of gun battles and bombings, but his greatest achievement was the cracking
of a nest of agents planted within the IRA which could well have destroyed
it. This involved the interrogation, murder and secret burial of two of the
disappeared - Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee. Hughes has spoken of how the
men holding McKee didn't want to shoot him and another man who was killed a
year later in a British Army ambush, had to be sent down from Belfast to do
These murdered hostages gave Hughes the details he needed to smash two
British intelligence operations, the Four Square Laundry in West Belfast and
a massage parlour on Belfast's Antrim Road. Several soldiers died when men
under the command of Hughes and Adams pounced on the two operations and both
of them became marked men. They were arrested together months later and
served time in Cage 11, where a famous picture of the diminutive Hughes with
his arm around the towering figure of Gerry Adams was taken.
Six months later Hughes escaped, hidden in a prison refuse lorry; two of his
favourite stories were how the crusher went within inches of his spine and
how he had a lucky escape when a taxi driver who took him part of the way to
Dundalk recognised him but turned out to be a sympathiser. There he assumed
a false identity, Arthur McAllister, and, posing as a businessman, returned
to Belfast to continue his war against military intelligence.
When he was next arrested it was in Myrtlefield Park, a smart part of town
where the British Army found not just guns, ammunition and a plan to
escalate the IRA campaign to all out war but also tapes of bugged
conversations inside Army headquarters in Lisburn. Hughes unit had not only
tapped the phones but infiltrated the barracks to steal a scrambler device
to decode the conversations.
He got fifteen years but while he was on remand two more agents were
introduced to the prison who quickly confessed to him that they intended
poisoning him. Poison was found and the men, Vincent Hetherington and Myles
McGrogan, other agents who had been trained with them in spy craft in Palace
It was a sting aimed at making the IRA destroy itself. The men Hetherington
and McGrogan named, who were often tortured and sometimes killed, were
dedicated IRA members who the army wanted out of the way. Again Hughes, the
IRA prison leader, somehow worked his way through to the truth of what he
was facing. In 1977, when he tried to break up a fight between a group of
IRA prisoners and a prison officer, he was arrested, given a new sentence,
and transferred to the H Blocks where he led the blanket protest.
In 1980 he was one of seven men to go on hunger strike secretly promised
another man, Sean McKenna, that he would not let him die and ended the
strike without achieving its objectives when McKenna slipped into a coma
after 53 days. He opposed the second hunger strike, in which Bobby Sands and
nine others died, but was overruled and lived, for years with behind back
innuendos that he had bottled out.
It wasn't till 25 years later that, spurred on O'Rawe, he told what had
really happened. In jail he won the loyalty of even some prison officers,
often to an embarassing degree. "Darkie Hughes had no faults" one officer,
Pat McCusker, told me after he was dismissed from the service on security
He suffered permanent physical damage from his hunger strike and, behind the
scenes, his personal life had fallen apart. His wife had, with his blessing,
moved in with another man. He spent his last years in a flat in Divis Tower,
which he liked because it was "cellular" like jail, drinking heavily and
avoiding crowds. He thought a lot and wrote disturbing vignettes.
In one he recalls a moment when he was unable to "do my duty" by shooting a
soldier at close quarters. "I stood over him with a .45 aimed at his head. I
could easily have physically pulled the trigger and sent him off to
eternity. But morally and emotionally I was not able to end his life." he
"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."
Carried with permission from the author.