On this day in 1948, Brendan “The Dark” Hughes was born. He came from a long line of Republican fighters, and as he grew up, he knew that his own entry into the IRA was inevitable. He was right and he was an effective soldier. Later in life he often talked about peace, reconciliation, tearing down the peace walls, and improving relations in the North of Ireland – but he knew he was being idealistic. That peaceful existence may have been what he ultimately wanted, but his life was filled with violence, prison, hunger, and retribution.
He rose to power in the Provisional IRA and was responsible for many brutal attacks, including the disastrous “Bloody Friday” – the largest bombing operation in the Provos’ history. Twenty-two bombs went off in Belfast and it was an atrocious act and a publicity nightmare for the Belfast Brigade. During this era, his best friend was Gerry Adams. They were nearly inseparable. They even went to jail together a couple of times and were always associated with one another. This is one of the main reasons that Gerry Adams’ continual denial of IRA membership is hard to believe. Years later, Brendan accused him of this and much, much more.
Hughes led a hunger strike while he was in prison. It began in 1980 – and it ended up being the precursor for the strike in ’81 that took the lives of ten men. Hughes called off the first strike after 53 days when he and his men were reaching critical condition. He knew the authorities would not agree to their demands in time, and he had been told by a few of the men that they were not prepared to die. He kept a promise to break the strike when death came too close because he wouldn’t have his men die in vain. When Bobby Sands began the second strike a few months later, Hughes did not approve of it, nor did he join in.
As Brendan Hughes grew older, he became known for eloquent and detailed (some would say too detailed) interviews. He expressed remorse for the crimes of his past and accepted responsibility for them. He participated in the Belfast Project and was one of the Republican paramilitaries who gave interviews at Boston College. They were explosive and are still being investigated to this day, because unlike many other interviewees, Hughes gave names and detailed accounts of participation. These details were chronicled in an explosive book called “Voices From the Grave“, which is admittedly gripping, but the book also ended up compromising the Belfast Project and everyone involved in it. It turned out that the promises of safety that were made to the interviewees were false, and they had none of the protections they were promised. Many of the other recordings are now in the hands of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and investigations and trials are ongoing.
To be clear, Brendan Hughes didn’t cause all of that – but the book that contained his stories and those of David Ervine may have. The allegations that continue to haunt Gerry Adams about his role in the Provisionals, and the murder of Jean McConville, are most certainly caused by Hughes. He accused Adams of these crimes and many more. Toward the end of his life, Brendan was very vocal and highly critical of Sinn Fein, his former friend, and the direction that the Peace Process was going. He believed that the men and women who had spent their lives devoted to the idea of a free and united Ireland had been sold out by the peace accord, and by Gerry Adams, specifically. He didn’t call for a return to arms, but one of his favorite and most poignant questions was, “What was it all for?” He never got a satisfactory answer from Adams and contrary to some reports, it is highly unlikely that the one time friends ever reconciled before Brendan’s death.
Brendan “The Dark” Hughes passed away at the relatively young age of 59. His health had never fully recovered from the hunger strike he led, which may have been a contributing factor in his early death. His funeral was attended by thousands and partway through it, Gerry Adams appeared to help carry the casket. Some say that was contrived, and designed to make it appear as though the two had patched things up before Brendan’s death. Others insist it was just a heartfelt gesture for an old friend – but it was too little, too late. It seems Hughes and his accusations will continue to haunt Gerry Adams for the rest of his life.