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A View North Another brick drops from republican wall

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Tommy McKearney, one of the editors of the new magazine Fourthwrite, was somewhat bemused at the reaction to the first edition with its controversial interview with Brendan "The Dark" Hughes. Hughes’s remarks critical of the current republican peace strategy were quoted widely in the British media.

"The press were slightly over the top," said McKearney, a former republican prisoner from Tyrone. Hughes, a prominent IRA figure from the 1970s who was always close to Gerry Adams, hit out in the interview at the Provisionals for, among other things, abandoning their goals of a democratic socialist republic.

He was quoted as saying: "All the questions raised in the course of this struggle have not been answered and the republican struggle has not been concluded. We never expected the Brits to get on a boat and go. But the things that we cherished such as a thirty-two county democratic socialist republic are no longer mentioned."

When the interviewer, Anthony McIntyre, also a former republican prisoner, suggested that there are many in the republican movement who felt that the struggle was worth it, Hughes replied:

"True. But amongst their number are those who have big houses and guaranteed incomes. Of course it was worth it for them."

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Hughes, who spent 12 years in prison beginning in 1974, many of them "on the blanket" during the protests to restore special-category status, goes on to criticize the IRA in West Belfast for doing nothing to stop what he terms "cowboy builders" from exploiting ex-prisoners on their building sites.

"The movement censored me and refused to allow me to speak," Hughes said. "Once they published a piece that I wrote — or should I say did not write as the thing was so heavily censored as to be unrecognizable from the article I actually wrote."

His sharpest remarks were reserved for the peace process.

"The political process has created a class of professional liars and unfortunately it contains many republicans," Hughes told McIntyre. He asks if with the Good Friday agreement "we have agreed to the British staying in the six counties? . . . The state we set out to smash still exists."

Hughes’s Provisional roots are very deep. He was arrested with Adams in July 1973. He escaped from Long Kesh sewn into an old mattress, which was dumped in a garbage truck leaving the prison. He took over as O/C of the Belfast Brigade when Ivor Bell, who had replaced Adams, was caught early in 1974. When Hughes was arrested again on May 10 that year, he was in the posh Malone Road area of South Belfast, where he had set up an IRA base and given himself a new identity as a toy salesman. In his house were found IRA plans for a takeover of demarcated areas of Belfast in a doomsday situation, which in May 1974 — in the midst of the loyalist strike against the power-sharing government — did not seem at all far-fetched.

He was returned to Long Kesh and served time in the same hut as Adams.

Another ex-IRA prisoner who was with them at that time told me last week: "He was Adams’s confidante."

Adams and Hughes regularly discussed the course of the movement during those years, and how it ought to be changed. Both were strongly opposed to the 1975 cease-fire arranged by Daithi O Conaill and Ruairi O Bradaigh. But in the Fourthwrite interview, Hughes said: "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."

Hughes led the prisoners on the first hunger strike, which began on Oct. 27, 1980.

The sometimes personal nature of the attack was noted. In the small community of ex-prisoners in West Belfast it was immediately clear to whom the remarks about those with "big houses and guaranteed incomes" referred. A friend of Hughes told the Echo that he was extremely surprised at "The Dark" launching such an attack. It was well known that Hughes had been privately critical of the movement’s agenda for over a year, but he had not been expected to take a public position.

"Brendan is a bit of a hero," McKearney said. It is not surprising, then, that criticism from such a source should prove intensely embarrassing to the republican leadership, particularly in the aftermath of the suspension of the new power-sharing government and its cross-border bodies.

"It is a signal that things are not as comfortable as they were a year ago," according to McKearney. "Another brick has come out of the wall."

Belfast holds the key to the success or failure of the republican movement’s current strategy, as it held the key to the success or failure of the armed struggle. (It was largely because the Provisionals were losing the war in Belfast that the leadership developed a political strategy in the first place.)

Though Adams’s position in the city is still strong, as McKearney sees it, in order for Sinn Fein to survive it will have to persuade the IRA to move on decommissioning at some point. He said he thinks there will have to be a "compromise of some sort."

"If not, Sinn Fein’s position will erode," he said.

He compared the situation the Provisionals now face with that which confronted the Workers’ Party back in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The party had made considerable political strides, winning seven seats in the Dail. But the old issue of the role of the "armed wing" — the Official IRA — still haunted it, though it had been on cease-fire since May 1972. Early in 1992, the party split, between those who wanted a clean break with the past and those who did not. The Democratic Left was formed. Within two years, it had entered coalition government.

Provisional Sinn Fein has its eye on building a political power base in the South, with the aim of eventually duplicating the Democratic Left and entering government, preferably with Fianna Fail.

It is conceivable that if the IRA continues to refuse to give the parliamentary party room to return to government, the movement might split, with the political wing going its own way and the IRA dwindling to a rump, rather as did the Official IRA in the 1980s.

In the meantime, according to "The Dark": "People are demoralized and disillusioned. Many are tired but it would still be possible to pull enough together to first question what has happened and then to try to change things."

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