Ed Moloney Times
28 March 2010The first time he set eyes on Gerry Adams, Brendan Hughes was impressed. It was 1970 and Adams was at the corner of a street in west Belfast directing rioters. “He certainly stuck out as a leader because he was able to control and direct,” Hughes recalled. “I can’t remember if he threw anything, but he certainly directed everybody else to do it.”
A few weeks later, Hughes and an IRA team were walking up the Falls Road into Ballymurphy to give armed back-up to rioters. “But Gerry directed us to this house and ordered us not to leave it,” Hughes said. “So we sat there all night... busting to get into the action, to shoot British soldiers. Gerry wanted to keep the rioting going. He didn’t want any gunfire.”Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes
Together, in the Belfast of 1970-3, they made a formidable team. Different in key ways, Adams and Hughes dovetailed perfectly, the product of their partnership being death and destruction. Adams was the strategist and thinker, Hughes the man of action and organiser. If Adams was the one who knew how to make the best snowballs, Hughes was better at throwing them.
The partnership deepened when both were imprisoned in Long Kesh, strengthened by their joint detestation of an IRA leadership they viewed as naive and dishonestly defeatist. “I shared a cubicle with him,” Hughes recalled, “when I was reading Che Guevara and Fidel Castro speeches, he was saying his rosary.”
Nightly they conspired to confound their common enemies, and they were intimate enough that Hughes was let in on the secret meaning of the “Brownie” byline that Adams used to promote his subversive views in An Phoblacht, the republican newspaper. Their break came when the time arrived for compromise. Hughes was affected as much by how it was all done as what was done: the deliberate running down of the IRA, the tolerance of informers and corruption, the lies, stealth and deception that he detected and, most of all, Adams’s denial of IRA membership.
The Sinn Fein leader’s refusal to acknowledge his IRA history was, in Hughes’s mind, the ultimate disavowal of their friendship. In 2001 and 2002 he gave a series of interviews to a researcher at Boston College putting the record straight. Hughes doesn’t give that as the reason for breaking the IRA’s rule of omerta, but it is clear that it was never far from his mind, a metaphor that conjoined personal and political betrayal.
IT WAS his swarthy looks that led to British troops coining his nickname, The Dark. But for years they had no photographs of him, just an idea of what he looked like.
“When I went on the run in 1970, my father destroyed every photograph of me in the house, so any time the British army raided, which was often, there were none to be found,” he said. During a stint in the merchant navy, Hughes never got a tattoo, again on his father’s advice. “It was a common thing for seamen to have tattoos and many a time I sat in a tattooist’s in Europe or the Far East, with other people, [but] I never ever got one because I always remembered my father telling me ‘it’s an identifiable mark’, and this was long before I went on the run. He must have had a premonition.” On joining the IRA’s D Company in Belfast at the outbreak of the Troubles, Hughes was soon in the thick of it. In June 1970, an army helicopter announced over loudhailers that the Lower Falls Road was under curfew and anyone found on the streets would be shot.
“There was 11 of us at that time in D Company and we were told that we were going to break the curfew,” Hughes recalled. “We made our way to Cyprus Street and split into two groups. But before we got to the top, the British had moved into the area and opened up. We took cover in houses and continued to fire at the British who were in the corner of Varna Gap. The gun battle lasted five, maybe six, minutes.”
Finding himself out of ammunition, Hughes took shelter in a house. It turned out that the owner was Giuseppe Conlon, whose son Gerry was later wrongly convicted for bombing Guildford. The reason he and Paul Hill, another member of the Guildford Four, were in England in the first place was because they had been run out of Belfast by Hughes.
“Conlon and Paul Hill were two young criminals,” he claimed. “It was actually me who ordered them out of the country. Both had spent a short time in Fianna Eireann, the young IRA. But when they were put out [of the Fianna], they were breaking into people’s houses, breaking their meters open and stealing the money. They were both ordered out or they would be shot.”
Giuseppe Conlon was not a republican, although years later, in Britain visiting his son, he was arrested and convicted of bomb-making. He died in prison in 1980 before his name was cleared. “The man was not involved in anything. But the night of the curfew, 99% of the people on the Falls Road would have been sympathetic to us,” Hughes said. “The whole area had been saturated by British troops; they began to kick in doors.”
The IRA leader had two hand grenades and asked Conlon where he could hide them. “Giuseppe brought me out to the back and I hid the two blast bombs on the roof of his shed, came back in and we sat down. We worked out a plan and this is ironic. Giuseppe would claim to be my father and I would be Gerry Conlon. That was in the event of the Brits coming in. So, I took my coat off, washed my hands, cleaned up a bit and Giuseppe made tea.
“There was this eerie silence; the only noise was a helicopter hovering overhead. Then we heard the doors getting kicked in. I was just sitting waiting my turn. Fortunately it didn’t come. We sat up the whole night, myself and Giuseppe, waiting.” Three days they waited until finally they heard the sound of people shouting, “The curfew’s over, come out, the curfew’s over.”
THE IRA has admitted killing nine people and burying them in secret graves between 1972 and 1978. The disappearances started not long after Adams was released from Long Kesh internment camp and around the time that he became the Belfast brigade commander. Most of those killed in Ireland were allegedly spies or informers working for the British.
Hughes was a witness and participant in some of the events that led to these disappearances, and in his interviews with Boston College, he confirmed that a special unit, several of whose members were active in the bombing campaign in Britain, took some victims to their deaths, and that the unit was established by and, ultimately, responsible to Adams. “They were always Gerry’s squad — I had no control,” he claimed.
Hughes says the IRA has been lying about how many people were disappeared. One of the names omitted from a list given to the authorities was the first person killed in this way. An IRA member, like most of the disappeared, his “crime” was not treachery, but the attempted murder of an IRA colleague for reasons of love or lust.
Joe Linskey was a senior figure, the Belfast brigade’s intelligence officer. He had been conducting a lengthy affair with the wife of an IRA colleague and apparently decided that only her husband’s death could ensure the survival of the liaison. One evening in June 1972, the cuckolded husband answered a knock at his door and was shot in the doorway as he held a child in his arms. Probably because of that, the shot was poorly aimed and not fatal. Linskey was court-martialled and vanished.
The disappearance of Jean McConville has assumed a dark status because of her wretched circumstances. She was a widow struggling to bring up 10 children, the oldest a hospitalised daughter of 20 who died not long after her mother’s disappearance, and the youngest six-year-old twin boys. She was a Protestant who had married a Catholic ex-soldier, converted to his religion, lived in east Belfast until loyalists intimidated the family out of their home and ended up in Divis Flats, perhaps the most squalid and dangerous public-housing estate in Europe at the time.
One night, some time between the last two days of November 1972 and December 7, masked men and women took her away from her flat, delivered her to a crowd of up to 20 people, who were armed and wearing balaclavas, and she vanished. Her surviving nine children were separated and six were admitted to care.
In August 2003, a walker discovered McConville’s remains on Shelling Hill beach in Co Louth, some distance from the spot identified by the IRA. A storm the previous spring had washed away part of a car park and roadway constructed on top of her unmarked grave. Eventually erosion exposed her body. An autopsy established that she had been killed by a single gunshot fired into the back of her head. Hughes said he handled McConville’s initial questioning by the IRA and took the first decisions on how to deal with her case. When the IRA was told that McConville had a radio transmitter, they searched her flat and discovered it. “I sent... a squad over to the house to check it out and there was a transmitter,” Hughes claimed. “We arrested her, interrogated her, and she told [us] what she was doing.”
Hughes says he confiscated the transmitter — given to her by an army handler — and that McConville admitted working for the army. Because she was a woman, she was set free with a warning not to do it again.
“A few weeks later, I’m not sure again how the information came about, another transmitter was put into her house,” he said. “She was still co-operating with the British; getting paid to pass on information. The special squad was brought into operation then. She was arrested again and taken away.” On the vexed questions of who decided to disappear her and why, Hughes alleges there was a dispute between Adams and his deputy, Ivor Bell, about whether to hide her body or to leave it in a public place, with Adams advocating her disappearance. The reason for hiding her body, he said, was because she was a woman. Adams prevailed and, Hughes alleged, gave the order for her to be taken away and buried.
It is evident that Hughes decided to makes these claims because of his anger at Adams’s efforts to distance himself from the IRA and various decisions that caused the loss of human life.
“I knew she was being executed. I didn’t know she was going to be buried... or ‘disappeared’ as they call it now,” he said. “I know one particular person on the Belfast brigade at the time, Ivor [Bell], argued for [her] to be shot, yes, but to be left on the street. Because to take her away and bury her would serve no purpose, people wouldn’t know.
“Looking back on it now, what happened to her... was wrong. I mean, she deserved to be executed, because she was an informer and she put other people’s lives at risk. There was only one man who gave the order for that woman to be executed. That man is now the head of Sinn Fein... I did not give the order to execute that woman — he did...”
ON Sunday, 3 June 1973, IRA internees housed in Cage 5 of Long Kesh made a gruesome discovery: from a wall heater in a room used for recreation hung the lifeless body of one of their comrades, Patrick Crawford, 22, from west Belfast, known to everyone as Paddy Joe. His death was regarded then, and ever since, as a suicide, with the prison authorities making a speedy assertion that “foul play was not suspected”.
That Sunday, IRA internees had taken part in a march and parade to commemorate comrades who had been killed in the Troubles, and so the huts in Cage 5 had seemingly been emptied of their occupants at the time of Crawford’s death. When the parade ended, Crawford’s body was discovered by other internees, or at least that is what the story was.
Crawford was an orphan, brought up by nuns in Nazareth House in south Belfast after being abandoned by his mother. By the time of his death Crawford was, his autopsy report said, of “strong, muscular build”, 6ft tall and healthy. He was wear-ing a blue T-shirt, a green V-necked pullover and a pair of denims, in the back pocket of which was a plastic comb. A police inspector said that his body was hanging by a linen rope, apparently torn from a mattress cover lying on the floor nearby, fixed to an iron strut that was attached to the wall of the hut, 10ft from the floor. Directly underneath the strut were two plastic chairs with boot marks on one of them and nearby a steel locker lying on its side.
The police surmised that Crawford had placed one of the chairs on top of the locker and climbed up to secure the linen rope to the strut. In his interviews with Boston College, Hughes revealed that the IRA killed Crawford by hanging him, supposedly because he was working as an informer. Hughes was convinced that his only crime was to break during police interrogation. He believes that the order came into the jail from Adams, the IRA’s Belfast commander at the time.
“He broke during interrogation and then gave intelligence and information to his interrogators. He was then interned and he was put in Cage 5. He was executed by the IRA in the prison; he was hanged,” Hughes said. “And the order was given by Gerry Adams... I believed for a long time that it was Ivor [Bell], but it wasn’t.
“There was no purpose to it. The only reason that you execute someone is [to set] an example and a deterrent to others. To hang someone who broke and then deny it and say he hanged himself was brutal, brutal murder.”
He admitted not being present at the Belfast brigade staff meeting that discussed Crawford’s fate and had believed that Bell, Adams’s deputy, sent in the order. But when he discussed the matter with Bell some years later, Hughes says he was told that it was Adams who had issued it.
Former IRA members interviewed by the researcher Anthony McIntyre, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added disconcerting detail to the story of Crawford’s death. The hanging was accompanied by a macabre ceremonial: a black cloth was draped over the improvised steps from which young Crawford was pitched into eternity and his wrists were taped behind his back. Afterwards the cloth, a vital piece of evidence, was removed.
They also say that he went meekly to his death. Crawford was a strong young man and could have fought his executioners – and by so doing could have created enough forensic evidence to cast doubt on the suicide theory — but for reasons still unfathomable, he chose not to resist.
Four men helped to hang Crawford. One of them was Harry Burns, known as Big Harry to his friends, a prominent Belfast IRA man who was related by marriage to Adams. During the hanging a group of internees inadvertently burst into the hut and saw everything. Afterwards the word spread among other inmates. “Prisoners were simply told he had taken his own life. But people knew, although they did not talk,” one of the sources told McIntyre.
Gerry McCann was a fellow orphan and resident at the same time as Crawford in Nazareth. “Paddy Joe was one of the older boys and he would be like a protector for me,” he said. McCann had suspicions “from day one” that Paddy Joe had been killed in Long Kesh: “My gut feeling was that he had been taken out.”
Now the manager of a golf club in Belfast, in January 2008, McCann contacted Adams via the Sinn Fein website to ask for a meeting. On March 7, he and the Sinn Fein president met at the party’s offices on the Falls Road.
While Adams’s role in ordering Crawford’s killing is open to question, there seems little doubt that the Belfast brigade staff did play a central part. But McCann met a wall of denial. “The meeting was very cordial,” he recalled. “I gave him a working document with questions. Was Paddy Joe an IRA volunteer, which I knew he was? Adams said he wasn’t. I didn’t believe he took his own life and I told Gerry that. His reply was that under no circumstances was he killed by his own people.”
Adams told McCann that he wasn’t in Long Kesh at that time and had no personal experience of the event, but he would try to contact people who were and they might be able to tell him more. Nothing happened for five months. McCann contacted Sinn Fein to ask when Adams would deliver on his promise. After that he got a second meeting, this time with Bobby Storey, who was a 17-year-old internee in Cage 6, next door to Crawford’s, in June 1973. Storey denied any IRA hand in Crawford’s death. “Under no circumstances could this tragedy be attached to the movement or any inmates,” he said.
SINN FEIN’S entry into electoral politics after the 1981 hunger strikes was accompanied by persistent allegations from across the political spectrum that its impressive performance was due in no small measure to an extensive vote-stealing effort. Hughes has admitted he ran the personation campaign for Adams’s first re-election bid to the House of Commons in 1987 and did the same in the 1989 council poll, each time stealing “massive” numbers of votes. Adams held on to his Westminster seat and his success might well have been due to Hughes’s efforts, since the gap to his SDLP rival, Joe Hendron, was about 2,000 votes.
“I worked on the elections out of Connolly House [Sinn Fein’s offices]. I was the main person in charge of personation,” Hughes said. “I organised busloads, carloads; I’d a fleet of taxis at my disposal to bring people to the polling booths.
“I did this right after I got out of prison. I hear unionists complaining about it all the time; they’re right, it was massive. I was the impersonation master. I did it from my house, from Connolly House, from the Sinn Fein centre on the Falls Road. I had loads of dead people, babies’ names, babies who weren’t born, babies who were in the graveyard; they all voted. And that’s how we got to the position that we’re in now.”
Hughes likens this political work to getting 100 people to push a boat that is stuck in the sand, and then the boat sails off leaving the helpers on the beach. That was how he came to feel about Sinn Fein as he watched its electoral success and Adams become an international peacemaker.
“That’s the way I feel; the boat is away, sailing on the high seas. The poor people that launched [the boat are] left behind sitting in the muck and the dirt and the sand.”
In an ambush at Loughall in May 1987, eight members of the IRA were shot dead by the SAS. Hughes believed the operation proceeded without proper intelligence, organisation or training. “I remember arguing against operations [like this] going ahead,” he said. “I sat in a house in Donegal along with Martin McGuinness and the rest of the GHQ staff where they were planning this major upsurge in the campaign; we were going to go in and take over [British] army billets and so forth, major operations involving major weapons.
“[Colonel] Gaddafi had come on board. Shipments of weapons came in [from Libya], all the money was there. What was lacking was the training, but there was this sort of bullish attitude from people like McGuinness to push ahead with these operations. I argued against them. But this push seemed to be coming from the top; [from] army council people like Joe Cahill.”
Later, when he saw how the peace process unfolded, Hughes began to suspect that operations like Loughall might have been sabotage — set-ups by peacemakers in the republican movement to remove militant hardliners who might be obstacles to the compromises that lay ahead. “I suspect now because of the situation that we’re in, that there might have been intent as well, to bring about a disaster,” he said.
“It’s because I’m so suspicious of the people in positions of power now that [it] leads me to think that there’s a possibility there was collusion there. I don’t know — it may be fair, it may be unfair.”
He was also left with a lingering suspicion about the hunger strikes, that there was more to the republican agenda than just getting the prisoners’ five demands. “I believe that [there were] purely political reasons to keep the thing going,” said Hughes, who led the failed 1980 hunger strike. “I believe that was the reason why the leadership on the outside did not intervene, because of the street protests that were taking place, because of the political party that Sinn Fein was building. I think that was outside’s foremost priority.”
When Hughes agreed to take on the security-department brief in the 1980s, he unwittingly began a journey that was to end in disillusionment with the IRA and flight from Belfast. He suspected that a blind eye was being turned to corruption on the part of well-connected activists and that the republican leadership was not willing to do much about it. There was, he believed, no IRA member in Belfast that he could trust any more, so widespread was corruption within the organisation. When he tackled Adams about it, he was told he was paranoid.
After that he left Belfast for Dublin, and when eventually he returned to the city of his birth, he had cut all his ties to the Provisional IRA. “The people I had trusted with my life I couldn’t trust any more. Gerry Adams I couldn’t trust; I knew there were robberies taking place; I knew people were getting immunity from arrest; I knew there were touts; I knew there was corruption.LAST RESPECTS: Sinn Fein councillor Fra McCann and party president Gerry Adams help carry the coffin of veteran republican Brendan Hughes from St Peter’s Cathedral in west Belfast yesterday. Mourners lined streets along the route taken by the cortege in the lower Falls area PICTURE: Hugh Russell
“[Adams’s response] was that there might be a wee bit of fiddling going on, but not [on] the sort of scale I was alleging.”
Hughes ended up deeply disillusioned, believing that the Provisional IRA was not led by its rank and file. “This is a movement led by the nose by a leadership that refuses to let go, and anyone who objects to it, anyone who has an alternative, is either ridiculed, degraded, shot or put out of the game altogether.”
More than anything else, he was disillusioned with Adams. “I find it so difficult to come to terms [with] the fact that this man has turned his back on everything that we ever did... I never carried out a major operation without the okay or the order from Gerry. And for him to sit in his plush office in Westminster or Stormont or wherever and deny it, I mean, it’s like Hitler denying that there was ever a Holocaust.
“I don’t know where it ends, once you get into [a] position where you start denying that you ever were what you were. It’s a lie and to continue telling lies and to deny his whole life...”Extracted from Voices from the Grave — Two Men’s War in Ireland by Ed Moloney, to be published by Faber on March 31 at £14.99