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'Courage of prisoners and support from the public kept us going'

(Oliver Hughes, Irish News)

As the 25th anniversary of the ending of the hunger Strike approaches, Councillor Oliver Hughes, former Sinn Féin member, reflects on the death of his brother Francis

I am 56-years-old, have seen a lot in my time and have lost many friends and relatives. But there were no deaths which had more impact on me much as the death of my brother Francis and that of his fellow hunger strikers in 1981. October 3 will be the 25th anniversary of the ending of the hunger strike. But for the families directly involved the sense of loss and pain is as powerful today as it was back then.

We came from a humble, rural farming background. We were in the republican tradition like a lot of the people within the small parish of Bellaghy and we were no strangers to harassment, arrest and imprisonment.

Francis, the second youngest of our family of 10 children, decided to join the IRA, became a very active member and had to go 'on the run'.

In 1978, shortly before he was captured, he was named by the RUC as one of the most wanted men in the north. He was seriously wounded in a shoot-out and was charged with killing SAS officer David Jones for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Francis joined the blanket and dirty protest.

On a visit in March 1981, he said to me that he was joining Bobby Sands on hunger strike. It was a very frightening comment. First, I knew Mrs Thatcher had been called the 'Iron Lady' and that she would not budge to grant political status. Second, I knew my own brother was fiercely determined to carry it through to the end, whatever the consequences and I knew the outlook was certainly not going to be good.

My family was thrown in at the deep end, as were the other families which later included that of my cousin Thomas McElwee from Bellaghy who would also die on hunger strike. I was asked to do spokesman in the middle of this very difficult time, facing the cameras and journalists and explaining the prisoners' case.

Believe it or not, we felt relief at Francis's death on May 12 because it brought an end to his agony and suffering. The most frightening time in my life was when Francis's remains were being taken from Forster Green hospital. RUC men acted hysterically, were abusive, drew batons and attacked the undertakers, the McCusker brothers. If it hadn't been for the presence of an American crew I believe we would have been badly beaten. What had kept us going was the courage of the prisoners and the massive daily support from ordinary people.

Shortly after Francis's death I was asked by Father Sean McManus to come to the USA. I was still very emotional and didn't want to go.

Anyway, a passport and visa were quickly arranged. However, when I landed in Kennedy Airport my name was called out over the tannoy and two policemen singled me out and put me in a car. I thought I was being arrested but they smiled and told me they were there care of the Mayor and were going to get me through heavy traffic. The major TV and radio stations interviewed me. The meetings I addressed were packed with hundreds of people.

I remember coming through New York and seeing a crowd of protesters.

I got out of the car and could hear them chanting 'Bobby Sands/Francis Hughes', the two who were then dead.

They were picketing the British embassy. I felt very proud and burst into tears as memories of seeing both men on their death beds flooded my mind.

Francis was a son, a brother, a victim of circumstances growing up in a community that was treated as second-class, a victim of harassment which he decided to physically resist.

My father is 98 and my mother 93. My mother sits with Rosary beads in her hand, saying her prayers.

I say to her, who are you praying to today and she says she's praying for Francis. During his hunger strike she went regularly to the monastery in Portglenone. She told me one day that she had a great chat with Fr Martin who said: "Whatever happens, it's God's will."

I said: "It's got nothing to do with God, it's that b**** Margaret Thatcher!"

But Fr Martin's comments made her very comfortable. Maybe it was God's will. I don't know. I do know that my parents' health has been very great so maybe Francis is looking after them.

The hunger strike of 1981 was unique and awe-inspiring. Such a thing was unheard of in the western world. Ten wonderful, young, good-looking, healthy men, intelligent men, one after the other dying a long, painful death for their convictions.

If that's not a test of courage I don't know what is.

I don't think the Irish people will ever forget them.

We visited the prison hospital in the H-Blocks earlier this year for Mass said by Fr Toner and Fr Murray. I looked down the cold corridor to the cells on either side where from March to October 10 men died and other men were on hunger strike. It was very difficult, very emotional.

There was this tremendous sound of silence. But also the sound of peace.

  • This article was submitted before Oliver Hughes resigned from Sinn Féin.

  • October 2, 2006
    ________________

    This article appeared first in the September 30, 2006 edition of the Irish News.


    This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News



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