Brendan Hughes influenced and affected numerous lives during his fifty-nine years of life. While some would hold that he was a republican hero and icon, indeed, the inveterate political disciple of James Connolly and Liam Mellows, others, from a different tradition, would view Brendan as having been part of an IRA leadership which sowed the seeds of communal friction and strife for over thirty years. What is beyond dispute is that he was a sincere Republican, a leader whose life's purpose had been the pursuit of Irish Freedom.
Still, despite the lofty idealism, Brendan did choose the path of armed struggle rather than the less turbulent road of passive persuasion. That, I suspect, will ensure that he forever remains a contentuious figure. And he was a contentious figure; he knew and accepted that; but few who met him would disagree with me when I say that he was also the classic egalitarian, a man for whom the old absolutes of fair play, justice and equality for all,
still had a pulsating orthodoxy. Even the fall of the Soviet Union 1987 did not erase his belief in his precious working class and socialist ideas.
Historically, Brendan Hughes had been at the centre of IRA gravity for almost the duration of the armed struggle. He had been Officer Commanding (O.C.) of 'D' company, a unit which had battled ferociously with the British army in the Falls Road area of Belfast in the early 1970's.
Noted for his leadership qualities, he quickly went on to become the IRA's Belfast commander. After being captured in 1974, Brendan was eventually sent to the steaming crucible of the H-Blocks, in Long Kesh/Maze prison. There he found protesting prisoners refusing to conform to prison rules (in order to thwart a British government plan to portray them, and hence the republican struggle as a criminal undertaking). Brendan (or "An Dorcha" as we Blanketmen affectionately called him) immediately became O.C. of the protesting prisoners. After four years of protest, he led a hunger strike in 1981, which ended after fifty-three days, when he kept his word to fellow-hunger striker, Sean McKenna
that he would not let him die, should he go into a coma.
The ending of this hunger strike has become a matter of some controversy, with differing interpretations of what constituted an "offer" from the British authorities. When I asked Brendan if an offer had been made, he said that it had been relayed to him that the Brits would concede to the prisoners' primary demand (that they be permitted to wear their own clothes, rather than the prison garb). I asked Brendan if he accepted the offer. He said that obviously he had not; otherwise the hunger strike would have ended and the crisis with Sean McKenna would have been averted.
There is a lot more to this unfortunate saga, but for me, the most crippling aspect of it is that Brendan shouldered a degree of guilt for there being a second hunger strike, during which ten hunger strikers died. In his flat in Divis Tower, I put it to him that he had acted honourably, that having given his word to Sean, he was duty bound to keep it, and that to allow him to die in those circumstances would have been tantamount to murder. He accepted this. Tellingly, Brendan went on to inform me that, McKenna apart, the five other hunger strikers in the camp hospital had intimated that they were not prepared to die either (he confirmed this in newspaper articles in 2005).
Once again, I put it to him that he had nothing to feel guilty about, that he had been put in an impossible position, not least by the outside leadership, who, he said, had been fully briefed about the deteriorating situation. We discussed this matter at length and both agreed that the outside
leadership should have stepped in and ended the hunger strike themselves, rather than to allow it to drift like it did.
Brendan and I had many frank discussions in his flat. What always impressed me about him was his glaring honesty. We talked also about the spectre of Sinn Fein nepotism and cronyism, which he saw everywhere. On one of the last occasions I spoke to him he said 'Money and power, Rick... that's what it's come down to.'
How would I describe Brendan Hughes? He was certainly a complex man, an idealist who in the latter years of his life felt betrayed by his erstwhile comrades, especially Gerry Adams, a man for whom he had had the utmost respect, and of whom he often eulogized when he and I were in our prison cell in the H-Blocks.
Brendan was a revolutionary leader, a charismatic and charming person. But if I were to find one word that would resonate with most people when describing Brendan Hughes, I think that word would be dignity. On Brendan's death I put this to a friend and he agreed, saying 'You can't buy dignity over the counter; you can't take it to the pawn shop, and it cannot be manufactured; yet it's more precious that gold. Ricky, the Dark had bucketfuls of dignity.' That he had.
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