12.5.06

Undertakers on centre stage in hunger strike hijack outrage

Daily Ireland

Two brothers found themselves in the middle of a melee bringing the body of Francis Hughes home

By Connla Young

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When Tommy McCusker and his brother Danny climbed into their old-style Vauxhall hearse on a warm May morning in 1981 there was nothing routine about the job that lay ahead although both men had undertaken a similar task many times before.
Within hours the brothers, who ran a small funeral directing service in the County Derry town of Magherafelt, would take centre stage in an emotional drama played out in front of a global audience.
Earlier in that week of unprecedented turmoil and tragedy, they had been asked by the family of hunger striker Francis Hughes to return his remains to their Scribe Road home, outside Bellaghy.
Now the brothers were keeping their promise to the Hughes family who, just a day before, had watched their son and brother die after 59 days on hunger strike in the hospital wing of Long Kesh prison.
An iconic figure, Hughes differed from the poet and writer Bobby Sands who died just seven days earlier. A dedicated combatant rather than a philosopher, Big Frank let his actions as an activist do the talking for him. As in life so it was in death. When the time arrived to bring his remains home Hughes would be pitched into one last battle. Little did brothers Tommy and Danny McCusker know that they would find themselves standing with him on this, his final battlefront.
The events that were to change the brothers’ lives began when they arrived at a Belfast suburb to collect the remains of the hunger striker. In a petty gesture, Hughes’ body was taken to Forster Green mortuary in the loyalist Belvoir estate on the outskirts of Belfast. It was there that that the McCusker brothers removed Hughes’s body to their hearse for the sombre journey home.
Within minutes of setting off the RUC attempted to hijack the hearse, which was being driven by Danny. In an instant the McCusker brothers were to become the last line of defence for the Hughes family.
Until now, Tommy McCusker has never spoken of the violent events that catapulted him and his brother Danny - who died in 1984 - onto the world stage.
On speaking out now, 25 years after the event, he says: “I am doing this to set the record straight for my brother Danny and myself. During Frank’s funeral the RUC put out several erroneous statements. They said we deviated from the agreed route. I want to clear Danny’s name and mine.
“Danny and I were assaulted and it was all captured ,by an American TV crew. But there were no prosecutions, they behaved just like it never happened. Our case got a lot of media coverage at the time.”
TV footage of what happened on Hughes’ final journey home has never been seen in Ireland or Britain. The local networks refuse to air it, but a passing news crew from the American network, ABC, captured the dramatic scene as the McCusker brothers refused to surrender the remains of Francis Hughes to the RUC.
Tommy McCusker has vivid memories of the incident on the Newtownbreda Road during which he and Danny were beaten by RUC men determined to take control of their vehicle and the body of the South Derry hero.
“Suddenly armed RUC piled out of their Land Rovers shouting ‘get out, get out’ and that they were ‘taking the body and hearse over’. Before I could get the door locked the RUC roughly pulled me out and stood me up. I said “not bloody likely that you’ll take over from us’.
“They were trying to get in the driver’s door to Danny. I managed to jump back in but was unable to get the door closed. The RUC men manhandled me, pulled me b y my legs and threw me onto the side of the road. A member of the cortege ran in to try and help me but was pushed away.”
While Tommy put up his own stiff resistance, his brother Danny, who had a heart complaint, was being viciously beaten by a number of RUC men while struggling to stay in the hearse.
“I got up quickly and pushed some of the RUC out of my path because Danny needed my help. I told the RUC that I needed to get to my brother because he had a bad heart. The RUC man replied ‘what the f**k do we care?’
“Danny was holding on to the steering wheel and bracing his shoulder against the door pillar as the RUC tried to grab at him through the window. To stop them taking control of the hearse he put the keys into his mouth.
“They pulled out his hair, scraped his face and neck and punched him. The force of the blows knocked the keys out of Danny’s mouth.”
Despite the violent onslaught, the dogged resistance of the battered brothers, coupled with the arrival of the American camera crew, eventually put paid to the RUC’s brutal tactics.
“When I finally got back in the hearse to Danny he was lying exhausted across the seat, dazed, bruised and in a bad way. I wanted to send for an ambulance but Danny refused saying, ‘I’m taking Francis Hughes home to the Scribe Road’”.
Originally the Hughes cortege was to be driven through west Belfast where thousands of mourners had gathered to pay their respects
However after consultation with the Hughes family and the RUC it was agreed the cortege would make its way directly to the M2 and on to Toome where thousands of people had gathered to accompany Francis Hughes across the River Bann, back into South Derry for the last time.
Tommy asked Owen Carron to act as a witness before he, Danny and the senior republican set off in the hearse once more for South Derry.
However as the cortege neared the end of the M2 the RUC made an attempt to divert the hearse away from Toome, causing the McCusker brothers to bring it to a halt a second time.
“The RUC jumped out again and asked us what we were doing. I said we were promised a straight run through to Toomebridge. They replied that the route had been changed on the way down but I said we were still going to Toomebridge.
“The RUC man answered ‘we’ll soon leave the body in Bellaghy for you’. He blew a whistle and a Land Rover reversed alongside the hearse. We stayed where we were.”
As reports of the second hijacking attempt swept through the carefully marshalled lines of mourners waiting to pay their respects in Toome, news that Pope John Paul II had been shot in Rome by a would-be assassin left many in a state of stunned bewilderment.
Almost immediately the heavens opened to compound the misery felt on the narrow streets of the County Antrim village.
Further down the road and after another round of protracted negotiations Tommy and his brother Danny agreed to a request by the family of Francis Hughes to follow the RUC to his home.
The chosen route followed by the RUC brought the brothers through every loyalist enclave and town between the M2 motorway and the hunger striker’s home.
Twenty-five years after those tumultuous events of May 1981 the emotion felt by Tommy is raw although both he and his brother fulfilled their duties that day.
“The hearse was damaged by people throwing missiles at the various point of the route but our duty to the Hughes family was to bring Francis home to the Scribe Road.
“That is what we did.”

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