By Jack Holland
Sean "Bap" Hughes’s recent acquittal of the murder of Garda Patrick Reynolds was just the latest episode in the long and mostly sordid saga of a gunman who is at the center of one of the Trouble’s nastiest little secrets — the disappearance of Seamus Ruddy.
Hughes is from the Divis Flats area of Belfast and is a former member of the Irish National Liberation Army. The policeman was murdered by a shot in the back during a fracas in an apartment block in Tallaght while police were following up a bank robbery late on the night of Feb. 20, 1982. Hughes’s fingerprints were found in the premises. In November 1982, gardai traveled to Paris, where Hughes had fled and informally identified him as the gunman. They did so again at his latest trial. There was testimony that Hughes even admitted to the killing while being held in 1997 on robbery charges in Swinford Garda station in County Mayo. But the judge ruled none of this was enough to convict him of capital murder. He became the first person to beat the charge of capital murder of a garda since 1968, the Irish Times reported.
Hughes began his life as a gunman with Gerard Steenson in the mid-1970s, just after the formation of the INLA. Steenson, one of the most feared republican gunmen to emerge from the conflict, became de facto leader of the Belfast INLA in 1981. Hughes was part of a plot to assassinate another INLA leader, Harry Flynn, in Dublin in December that year. Steenson feared Flynn as a rival. The plot failed, though Flynn was seriously wounded.
Two months later, Hughes went on the run after the killing of Reynolds. He headed for France. In Paris, there was a small coterie of INLA members who were part of the organization’s gun-running network, which stretched from the Middle East through Eastern Europe, West Germany and France to Ireland. It was through this network that the group got the bulk of its guns and explosives, including the material for the bomb which killed Conservative Party chairman and mentor of Margaret Thatcher Airey Neave in March 1979.
Hughes developed his own links with Action Directe, the French left-wing terrorist group that was involved in a series of robberies and bomb attacks in Paris in the mid-1980s. Hughes used these contacts to help organize some small arms shipments to Ireland in 1982 and 1983. The mainstream INLA, however, steered clear of Action Directe and Hughes.
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Back in Ireland, by 1985 with Steenson and his followers in jail, a new leadership was rising to the top, headed by "Big" John O’Reilly and Peter "Dunter" Stewart, a former Provisional IRA member. The INLA was soon embroiled in one of its periodic — and vicious — disputes.
O’Reilly and Stewart wanted weapons. Hughes’s sources were limited as he was effectively frozen out of the main arms supply network run by the older INLA activists in France, who distrusted him. Stewart and O’Reilly wanted to change that. They arranged to go to Paris in May 1985. There they met with Hughes. They persuaded Seamus Ruddy, a language teacher and former INLA gun-runner who was also based in the French capital, to meet with them. They believed that Ruddy still knew how arms might be procured. When he said he did not, he was badly beaten and murdered. His body was buried somewhere in a wooded area near Rouen.
Soon afterward, in another unlikely twist in the Hughes saga, his quest for weapons led him to a Hollywood screenwriter and left-wing activist Bill Norton and his wife, Eleanor. Norton, who scripted John Wayne’s "Brannigan" movie, among many others, agreed to help the INLA and smuggle arms back to Ireland, where he had a house in Omeath, Co. Louth. But the arms-smuggling team was under surveillance and on June 11, 1986 were arrested by the French police. All were convicted. Norton received four years and his wife three (with two suspended). After serving their sentences, the Nortons retired to Nicaragua, where Bill Norton died in 1992.
Meanwhile, Hughes’s lawyer did a deal which allowed him to be deported to a French protectorate near Madagascar where he spent several years. Reportedly, even there Bap stirred up some trouble and had his shack burned down by the natives. However, he was a lot safer among them than he would have been at home. During those years, the INLA tore itself apart in another feud which claimed the lives of 12 activists, including "Big" John O’Reilly and Steenson himself.
When Bap finally arrived back in Ireland, after the IRA’s 1994 cease-fire, it was a different world from that which he had fled more than 12 years before. It was a world of diminishing opportunities for republican gunmen. Reportedly, Bap made overtures to the Provisional IRA about the possibilities of joining them but was rejected. He was reportedly seen frequently hanging around Milltown cemetery in West Belfast. By 1997, he was back in Dublin.
Not long after that, Hughes was arrested and charged with the robbery attempt.
One of those who attended Hughes’s trial was Cecilia Moore, Seamus Ruddy’s partner. The two had met a few weeks after Ruddy’s disappearance when Cecilia had gone to Paris in search of him. Then Hughes had sneeringly told her that her boyfriend had "swam home."
Since that time Hughes has changed his tune and has been cooperating with the authorities, providing them with information as to where Ruddy is buried. The INLA has said that he will not be accepted on their landing of the prison as a member of the organization until the body is secured. If accepted back into the INLA, of course, that means Hughes would be eligible to be freed very soon as part of the Good Friday agreement, so it’s in his interest to be cooperative.
How did Cecilia feel about that, she was asked?
"It’s horrible to see it," she responded in an interview. "But it’s part of the peace process. You have to get used to seeing them out and about." She is all too aware that Hughes is crucial if the unfinished business of Ruddy’s disappearance is ever to be concluded. Hughes is the only one left who knows where he is buried. O’Reilly was murdered in 1987 and "Dunter" Stewart died a few years ago of a heart attack.
"I’m not going to rest until Seamus’s body is found," she said.