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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Adams had to carry Hughes' coffin

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

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 directed.

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 coy.

He had been embarrassed by Hughes who stated, in the Sunday Times last year, that McGuinness had authorised a wave of attacks, including the 1987 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 Féin 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 Féin 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 it.

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 Barracks Holywood.

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 grounds.

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 wrote.

"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."

February 26, 2008
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This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on February 24, 2008.

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