At the beginning of December
2000, Brendan Hughes, along with Anthony McIntyre, spoke at a meeting
in Manchester on the situation in Ireland. At it they both outlined
their opposition to the Good Friday Agreement and the role that Sinn
Fein is playing. They both belong to the Irish Republican Writers
Group (IRWG) which produces the magazine Fourthwrite. Both men were
IRA POWs held in Long Kesh. Brendan Hughes was the Commanding Officer
of the prisoners when the first hunger strike began in 1980 and he
was himself one of the hunger strikers. After the meeting, Brendan
kindly agreed to be interviewed, first telling how he had been held
and questioned for 1 1/2 hours at Liverpool Docks before being allowed
entry to Britain.
What are your views on the peace process?
BH: I basically strongly agree that the war in Ireland with the
British is over. I believe that the military struggle is over but
I totally disagree with the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). The Republican
Movement, the IRA, spent 30 years bringing down the rotten regime
called Stormont, controlled by the British government. The GFA has
brought Sinn Fein into Stormont, still controlled by the British,
with the RUC still armed and still on the streets. British troops
are still on the streets of the north of Ireland, still on the roofs
of the Divis Flats. Sinn Fein people have now become part of the occupation
forces in the north of Ireland. I disagree with that. I disagree with
the whole concept of administering British rule in Ireland, which
I believe Sinn Fein is now doing. I therefore will oppose it.
The GFA allowed two Sinn Fein ministers into Stormont. One of the
acts the Sinn Fein Health Minister carried out was to close a hospital.
[Bairbre de Brun, Sinn Fein Health Minister, carried through cuts
in the health budget. Hospital facilities in South Tyrone and the
Jubilee in Belfast have been closed. She is also introducing the Private
Finance Initiative into the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.] I
believe that as long as Sinn Fein are in this regime, then they are
in a British regime and they are administering British rule in Ireland.
I totally disagree with what's happening and I'm opposing it, but
it's not easy. I've been a member of this movement for over 30 years,
most of my adult life. It doesn't make it easy. I don't feel comfortable
about it, but I know it's right to oppose it because what's happening
is, I think, a total betrayal of everything the Republican Movement
has represented over the years.
I think the Republican leadership has begun to move away from everything
that we fought for and I'm saddened over that. Again I have to say,
it's not an easy thing for me to do. They are my old friends and comrades,
but for me it's wrong, very much wrong and I have to speak about it.
FRFI: Why do you think this process is happening? Whom does Sinn Fein
BH: I think Sinn Fein is changing. I've noticed it over the years.
I've written to An Phoblacht, the newspaper of Sinn Fein, and tried
to expose the rogue builders on the Falls Road – rogue builders that
are paying men £20 for a day's work, way under the rate. That was
my first act, to go and write an article and try to get it published
in An Phoblacht. When they read the article at the An Phoblacht office,
they refused to publish it. I threatened the editor that if they didn't
publish it, I would go to the Irish News with a stronger version.
The article was eventually published, very much watered down. To the
present day those same rogue builders are still there paying the same
wages with the complicity of the Sinn Fein leadership. To me it's
a betrayal of the working class. To me it's a shame, a disgrace that
they are allowed to get away with this and these same builders that
I've been writing about, campaigning about, are building Sinn Fein
offices! They're still paying the same wages. They pay their men in
pubs, they allow the men to run up bills, to me they're just alien
to everything Republican, everything revolutionary that I've ever
stood for in my life. It shouldn't be allowed to happen.
A new type of leadership has come in who are 'collar and tie' – all
the woolly jumpers have been thrown away and the collars and ties
are in. From my perception of things the Republican leadership has
moved away from the working class and is attempting to win the middle
class. They're attempting to win the ground that belonged to the SDLP.
FRFI: Do you see any way forward?
BH: I don't have an immediate alternative. The only alternative
we're expressing through the IRWG is debate. I think debate has been
muffled and censored. I think debate has been unwelcome. I think the
way forward for us at present in the IRWG is to try and expose the
weaknesses and the betrayal of the GFA and to force people to answer
the questions that we have asked. To build a broad base of debate
initially, to try and force the Republican Movement back to the base
where it belongs, in other words the working class. As to building
another party, I am certainly not attempting to do that. I think the
people who can bring about a revolutionary socialist party in Ireland
are in Sinn Fein. If the little that we are attempting to do in the
IRWG goes any way towards that, then OK, that's an achievement on
its own. If all that fails, at least what we're trying to do is record
that not everyone could go along with Sinn Fein's acceptance of the
GFA and the British solution to the Irish problem. At least we'll
be on record of trying to oppose it and of sticking our necks out.
If we achieve more than that, then great, we can develop from there.
Everybody is opposed to the IRWG – the British, the British media,
the Irish media, the Republican media, everyone is opposed to what
we're trying to say. To me that says we must be doing something right.
Brendan Hughes was the Commanding Officer of Republican POWs in the
H-blocks in 1980 when the first hunger strike began and was one of
the first seven hunger strikers. The hunger strike was the culmination
of the struggle of the prisoners for the right to be classed as political
prisoners, a right taken away from them by the Labour government in
1976. The hunger strike began on 27 October and on 1 December three
women prisoners from Armagh joined the protest. Mass demonstrations
took place throughout Ireland and across the world. On 15 December,
another 23 prisoners joined the hunger strike, followed the next day
by a further seven. The health of Sean McKenna, one of the original
hunger strikers, was at this point severely deteriorating. British
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Humphrey Atkins issued a document
to the hunger strikers indicating that their demands would be met.
The hunger strike was called off. The British government reneged on
the deal and a second hunger strike began, leading to the death of
ten hunger strikers.