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Obituary: Brendan Hughes - IRA leader and hunger striker

Brendan Hughes was an IRA fighter who for much of his life pitted himself against the British presence in Northern Ireland but latterly became a bitter critic of the republican movement's political direction. Once a close colleague of the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, he played a pivotal role first in the fierce Belfast IRA gun-battles of the 1970s and then later in the lethal confrontations behind bars in Long Kesh.

But while Adams and others went on to re-fashion, gradually but radically, the IRA and Sinn Fein into the grouping which today shares power at Stormont, Hughes was left stranded in traditional republicanism. Even after he came to feel betrayed by the evolution of modern republicanism, he remained nostalgically attached to the spirit of the most intense days of the IRA's "armed struggle".

A classic photograph from the 1970s shows him grinning arm-in-arm with Adams inside Long Kesh (which later became the Maze prison). Many disillusioned years later the picture still hung in Hughes's tiny flat in west Belfast: "The reason I keep that there is it reminds me what it used to be like," he explained. "I loved Gerry. I don't anymore, but I keep the photos to remind me of the good times."

A small swarthy man nicknamed "the Dark", Brendan Hughes was born in Belfast in 1948 into a republican family in the Falls Road, joining the IRA on the outbreak of the troubles in 1969. Hughes related to the BBC journalist Peter Taylor, who interviewed him extensively, that when the British Army first came in he chatted to soldiers. "Some of them were 16, 17 years of age," he recalled. "I remember sitting talking to them, sometimes to two, three o'clock in the morning."

But as the situation rapidly deteriorated Hughes joined the IRA. He excelled in the street-fighting which took many British military lives, his unit carrying out five or six attacks in a day. He was also involved in the arms-smuggling which gave the IRA an edge in many encounters with troops, helping to bring in the light but deadly Armalite rifles from America.

By 1973, high on the Army's most-wanted list, Hughes was captured along with Gerry Adams at a Falls Road house. The two men said they were beaten up by troops, Adams writing that they were "barely able to walk upright and very badly marked, black and blue all over our bodies." They were interned at Long Kesh. Six months later Hughes escaped in a rolled-up mattress in a rubbish lorry: "The mattress was full of sawdust and he nearly choked," Adams was to recall.

He escaped to across the border to Dublin, where he assumed a new identity, Arthur McAllister, and returned to Belfast 10 days later, pretending to be a toy salesman. Back on the streets, he rose through the ranks to become the IRA's Belfast commander, hiding out in a flat in the plush Malone area. When he was re-arrested he and Adams shared a cubicle in Long Kesh's Cage 11, known as "the generals' cage".

There they developed plans for an overhaul of a movement which seemed in danger of defeat. Hughes was to spend more than a decade in prison, but far from being removed from combat he and others opened up a second front there. In October 1980, as IRA commander within the jail, he went on hunger strike with six other men. It lasted 53 days, but as one of the strikers approached death Hughes called it off, an act which saved one life but which led to a further hunger strike the following spring under Bobby Sands, in which 10 republicans starved themselves to death.

Hughes's lengthy fast left him with a variety of heart and vision problems and arthritis. But the mental scars were even deeper. Released from prison six years later, he sought counselling for post-traumatic stress, saying: "The hunger strikers' faces are always before me." He later said: "Sometimes I've sat here crying for a week. During one period I was almost at the point of jumping off a bridge."

Gerry Adams, who described Hughes as "a good-hearted generous comrade, quick-tempered but immensely kind," yesterday commented: "He never fully recovered from the hunger strike." He added: "Although he disagreed with the direction taken in recent years, he was held in high esteem by all who knew him."

The theme of Brendan Hughes's life was one of loss. There was much loss of life in his IRA career, both of British soldiers and of fellow IRA members, especially those who died on hunger strike. There was his own loss of liberty and the loss of his wife who, with his consent, formed another relationship in his absence.

There was also the loss of his relationship with Adams, which meant a lot to him but finally ended in disenchantment. Hughes did not advocate a return to "armed struggle" but he was against the peace process, and could not square it with the old simplicity of pounding away at the British. He is certainly not the only person in Ireland to grapple with the huge question of what the troubles meant. As he put it: "I keep wondering – what was it all about?"

David McKittrick

Brendan Hughes, political activist: born Belfast 1948; married (one son, one daughter); died Belfast 16 February 2008.

Irish Independent

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