By Mark Hayes
A short time ago I was asked by TAL’s editor if I would consider writing a short piece about Brendan Hughes. As readers of TAL will doubtless be aware Brendan Hughes figures prominently in the narrative of modern Irish Republicanism, and much has already been said and written about him. What else, I pondered, might usefully be added to the wealth of material that already exists? Moreover, there is a sense in which the effort to recollect causes much more pain than pleasure. Why inflict more discomfort by revisiting the past? Perhaps it would be far better to press on without glancing backwards.
As it turns out Talman posited the question at precisely the right time because recent events have made remembering an obligation for anyone who claims to profess adherence to the Republican creed. It is not the gradual and insidious elision from principled armed resistance to pragmatic parliamentary politics that has precipitated my desire to comment, although that particular, sorry story is shameful enough – it has been the careless vitriol recently directed toward Brendan himself by people who should know better. The leader of Sinn Fein, not content with presiding over the somnambulant drift of his party into the arms of the British state, recently saw fit to describe Brendan Hughes as a “liar”. Indeed, certain individuals via contributions to social networks and assorted websites (I will not dignify them with a name) have even suggested that Volunteer Brendan Hughes was an informer! A perfect moment, therefore, to reflect on the personality of the man himself.
I will not dwell on the biographical detail of Brendan Hughes’ life and the contribution he made in the effort to free Ireland from imperialism and oppression. That information is a matter of fact and public record. Not even the pro-Unionist “Republicans” ensconced safely in Stormont could seriously cast doubt on his credentials as an armed volunteer. The people of west Belfast and across the occupied north were well aware that if even half of the folk-tales were true about Brendan, then he was a volunteer to be reckoned with, and to be remembered in the same breath as Bobby Sands. This is not the substance of my modest intervention. I am writing to tell you something of the man I knew, who stayed in my house, who laughed with us, debated with us, and the man whose coffin I helped carry around the narrow streets of Belfast. I considered the “Dark” a good friend and comrade.
Yet we need to be brutally clear and honest in our assessment – Brendan was a man with faults and frailties, and he wrestled with his conscience over decisions that would have destroyed lesser men. He made mistakes too, as all human beings have. The crucial point, however, is that Brendan would have recognised those weaknesses and acknowledged them. It may seem slightly odd to emphasise this observation. Why would I focus upon this aspect of his character, when there are so many tales to be told about fighting “Brits” and attacking the forces of the state? I could recount many, and a few would provide ample evidence to confirm the old aphorism that fact is far stranger than fiction. Many of these incidents and events have been recorded for posterity for the benefit of future generations. So why not make an icon of a man who, as much as anyone, is deserving of retrospective veneration? Why not allow the reputation of Brendan Hughes the IRA Commander to evolve into another cult of the Republican soldier? There are several inter-related reasons why great care should be taken over how his legacy is handled.
Firstly, Brendan would not have wanted a celebration of his deeds. He was clearly aware that the manipulation of commemorations could serve a variety of purposes, not all of which would be endorsed by those who were being commemorated. Moreover, turning “the Dark” into a “fallen soldier” to be worshipped as such would seriously diminish and distort the nature of the politics which underpinned his contribution to the Republican struggle.
Politics should take priority in any account of Brendan Hughes. “Darkie” was an unreconstructed and unrepentant class warrior, and as such he did not fight for a utopian united Ireland as some kind of mystical national entity which would somehow automatically resolve all social, political and economic contradictions. Che Guevara mattered much more than Cuchalain and “the Dark” had his eyes focused firmly on a further horizon, his vision fixed – the Republic would be egalitarian or it would be lost. People may not be aware that one of Brendan’s bitterest disputes with Sinn Fein was about the pay of building workers in Belfast. The fate of ordinary working class people, Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, formed the very epicentre of his perspective on the world. Securing a living wage, decent housing and quality healthcare for everyone were the focus of his attention, rather than the misty and maudlin fixations of “mother Ireland”. Portraying Brendan as anything other than a man of the people would be a gross distortion of historical reality, and a sad betrayal of his political legacy. He believed in ordinary people, and he belonged to them alone.
Secondly, Brendan Hughes knew that violence should only ever be tactic (not a principle), and the glorification of war is, at best, unseemly. Brendan was a gentle man, despite having a righteous temper, and would only ever countenance the use of an armed strategy in the service of the noblest ideals, against the rich and powerful. He would never have sanctioned the use of violence to intimidate the weak, unlike some who have used the epithet “soldier” or “freedom fighter” to obscure the evil essence of their malevolent misdeeds. Brendan Hughes was not a bully. It might also be added, nevertheless, that Brendan would never have traded the right to resist as a bargaining chip in a tawdry compromise with the bitterest of political enemies. Brendan may have been a reluctant soldier, but he was not a fool.
The other related point of identifying and emphasising very clearly Brendan’s own capacity for critical self-reflection is this – he was an honest man. If he made a mistake he was prepared to acknowledge it. In that sense he had the humility of a fallible human being trying, as we all are, to do what is best in onerous circumstances. He also accepted other people as they were, with all their faults, and was hugely generous in giving his time and consideration to others. He was never arrogant or self-obsessed, and incredibly diffident – despite the fact that he had very little to be modest about. Brendan was generous, decent and honourable. This is why the accusation of deliberate duplicity is so utterly grotesque – the very word “liar” as applied to “Darkie” Hughes should choke those who have the temerity to deploy it against him. Men who have compromised, conceded the moral high ground and capitulated to the enemy now make accusations that would never, ever have been made to Brendan’s face. Such accusations are a desperate and despicable ploy to destroy the reputation of a principled political adversary. The suggestion that Brendan’s so-called “demons” somehow invalidate his ideological perspective is not only specious, it is the work of the most unscrupulous gombeens, a cheap and spurious knave’s trick designed to deflect attention from his legitimate critique of Sinn Fein. But the political ideas expressed by Brendan will not be marginalised by the self-serving insinuations of those mercenaries who are now content to administer British rule on behalf of businessmen and bankers. If the firing squad in Kilmainham jail could not silence James Connolly, then the political assassins who now take aim at the reputation of “Darkie” Hughes will have to think again.
In many ways now, as the consensus constructed around Sinn Fein’s “peace strategy” begins to crumble, the people who perpetrate this foul calumny are more to be pitied than scorned. Their project is being progressively dismantled. Nevertheless, those people who remain committed to the path of pro-Union constitutionalism should seriously reflect on the nature of a leadership which is willing to do such a wretched dis-service to the memory of a good man. Of course those who have led the strategy have far too much to lose by retracting their vile revisionism. To concede that the calculated character assassination of Hughes is morally reprehensible would cast considerable doubt on the rest of the story they have cynically concocted to justify their discredited political strategy. Feeble men – it must be cold for them, standing there in his shadow.
When I think of Brendan I recognise neither the “warrior” icon of Republican mythology, nor the cruel misrepresentations cast by his political opponents. I remember a person of the utmost integrity, but also an activist full of passion for the pursuit of a political ideal that some of us steadfastly refuse to relinquish. His enemies will never be able to degrade his reputation because, to paraphrase Bobby Sands, they can call him whatever they want – the people call him a man!
And I would take the opportunity to make one final point to the politically motivated purveyors of half-truth and crass distortion – if you take issue with him, then you take issue with us all. We will not be silent, because the “wee Dark” still walks among us…
Mark Hayes – November 9 2013