21.2.08

Brendan Hughes

The Herald

Former Provisional IRA commander;
Born October 1948;
Died February 16, 2008.


BRENDAN Hughes, who has died aged 59, was a a one-time commander with the Provisional Irish Republican Army who broke with former comrades when they pursued peace in Northern Ireland.

Hughes spent his final years criticising Sinn Fein leaders for accepting Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord and said that, while the IRA should not return to violence, its political leaders made people suffer needlessly for decades when the British government had offered similar peace terms as long ago as 1975.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, a longtime comrade of Hughes inside and outside prison, helped carry his coffin outside St Peter's Cathedral in west Belfast, where both men joined the IRA as teenagers. Veterans of the IRA and dissident groups were among more than 2000 mourners.

Hughes specified before dying that he wanted to be cremated rather than buried in the IRA's roll of honour section in Milltown Cemetery, west Belfast, where dozens of his comrades lie.

Hughes and Adams were arrested together in July 1973 and both interned without trial. Hughes, reputed to be one of the IRA's most determined gunmen and bank robbers, escaped six months later.

He returned to Belfast posing as a toy salesman and operated from an apartment in the wealthiest district of the city, where he directed IRA operations in the city.

Police raided Hughes's safe house in May 1974 and arrested him. He became the IRA's commanding officer inside the Maze prison, where he oversaw a six-year campaign to force British authorities to concede them status as "political prisoners."

The protest involved going naked rather than wearing prison uniforms, smearing their own excrement on cell walls - and finally mounting the 1980 hunger strike. Hughes and six others refused food for 53 days before Hughes ordered the hunger strike to end in bitterly disputed circumstances.

Hughes was replaced by Bobby Sands as IRA commander inside the prison. Sands and nine other inmates starved to death in the 1981 hunger strike that also failed to achieve their demands.

Hughes resumed IRA activity after his 1986 parole, but grew disillusioned when former colleagues turned full-time to politics and pursued compromise after the 1997 IRA ceasefire.

He said Sinn Fein leaders had turned their backs on the working class, preferring to take good paying government jobs in a Northern Ireland that remained British territory. Hughes called the IRA's 1975 ceasefire an opportunity lost.

"Think of all the lives that could have been saved had we accepted the 1975 truce. That alone would have justified acceptance. We fought on and for what? What we rejected in 1975," he said in 2000.

Hughes and his wife, who had a son and daughter, separated while he was in prison. All survive him.

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