Day that a door opened briefly into ‘The Dark’

Belfast Telegraph
Thursday 21, February 2008

Working in Belfast during forging of the Good Friday agreement and the tense implementation years that followed, making sense of the peace process often necessitated talking to former paramilitaries on both sides.

So when Brendan Hughes, a revered IRA icon to many Irish-Americans, went public with criticisms of Sinn Fein’s peace strategy in early 2000, I immediately sought an interview.

I’d read about the ruthless IRA operative, the mattress-roll escapee and the 1980 republican hunger strike leader. So I half expected a massive ego to greet me when I arrived at former IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre’s Ballymurphy home to interview him.

However, Hughes was totally without airs. He answered all questions, including pointed queries as to the plausibility of his alternatives to Sinn Fein’s strategy.

He said that he’d long held reservations about the peace process but had remained quiet out of “loyalty to the republican leadership”.

Hughes said that when he joined the Provisional IRA in the early 70s, ” there was a simplicity about it – that we would fight the Brits and force them down Belfast Lough and out.”

When that didn’t happen, he later became an ardent supporter of the radicalisation of the republican movement that evolved from mid-70s debates among Long Kesh internees.

“Our whole philosophy within the prison was to bring about a 32-county, democratic socialist republic,” he said.

“And that’s mainly my objection now, and my concerns with the republican movement: that it is developing into a purely middle-class movement, that it has dropped the 32-county democratic socialist republican principles.”

Hughes believed that most American supporters never grasped the republican movement’s late-70s leftward shift. After being released from the Maze, he was sent on a fundraising trip to US in the late 1980s, where he said he was shocked at how conservative many supporters in groups like Irish Northern Aid (NORAID) were.

“I remember sitting in a hotel room with a bunch of these guys, and they were all pretty well-off,” he said.

“There was a briefcase with the money in it on the table. And they were banging the table. This guy, what did he call himself – the ‘OC of the Irish-American Republican Army’ – was banging the table demanding that I shoot the Queen, that we shoot postmen, that we shoot anyone with the crown on their caps.”

Hughes believed the peace process back home had involved similar republican efforts to court moderates and conservatives, and that that strategy had taken the movement into a cul-de-sac, and far from a united Ireland.

Of Gerry Adams, often pegged as a chief architect of that strategy, he said: “Nobody works harder in this movement than Gerry. And I have great admiration for him in that regards. And he’s my friend, my comrade.”

But, he added, a flood of British peace money had left many republicans ” making a living out of politics here now, and people who are in a position of power and influence. And it becomes enjoyable … (but) a lot of people are left behind, a lot of the ordinary working republicans are left behind.”

Hughes insisted that only “open debate and open criticism” could save republicanism.

“The leadership has to allow itself to be open to criticism from people like me – not negative criticism, positive criticism,” he said.

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