The following is a transcript of remarks made by Brendan ‘Darkie’ Hughes to a public meeting in 2001 in which he reflects on a lifetime of struggle and the current political situation in Ireland.
After that last speaker I was prepared to walk out, I don’t know how I am going to beat that. Listen, we are a bit stuck for time and I could ramble on here for a long time on the jail situation but there is a few important points I want to make.
Briefly I will give a bit of history on where I came from. I was born into a working class background, a socialist background, and became a member of the IRA, and went to jail, escaped from jail, went back into jail, became part of the prison protest. In 1972 there was a truce and the IRA asked for the British to give a declaration of intent to withdraw and that would end the war. Two weeks later it was obvious the British were not coming across with that. The end of 1974/75 another ceasefire was called, this time it was a long drawn out ceasefire and the intentions of the British at that time was to get the IRA involved in a long drawn out ceasefire, and an attempt to normalise the situation, criminalise the situation and to pacify the situation. That basically meant to get the British troops off the street, the RUC back onto the street and put republicans in jail. That they done.
In 1974/75/76 I was in the cages of Long Kesh and soon became O/C in the cages of Long Kesh. In 1978 it was decided that I was no longer a political prisoner and on a morning in January 1978 I was negotiating with the governor and he called me “Mr Hughes” or “O/C”. That afternoon I was taken out, brought to the H Blocks of Long Kesh, and stripped, given a blanket and thrown into a cell. That was part of the criminalisation policy that the British government employed at that time. The intention was to turn me into a nice law abiding criminal.
At that time the British believed that they had the struggle beaten - they refused to give a declaration of intent to withdraw, they refused to agree for the Irish people to come to their own conclusions of what sort of democracy, what sort of social democracy, we wanted here. The intentions from the war when I first got involved was to bring about a 32 county democratic socialist Republic.
By 1980 we had been on the blanket protest for over four years and the brutality that took place there is just so undescribable. I mean we were locked in the cells 24 hours a day, we were starved, we were beaten, we went through the white light torture treatment at night - when the lights was left on. In the winter the heating was turned off, in the summer the heating was turned on. Men were taken out and beaten. They introduced the wing shifts, where a whole series, thirty men at a time - not all at one time, one man at a time, but thirty men on a wing - were taken out individually, beaten and thrown into another wing.
By 1980 we decided on the Hunger Strike, because we needed to end this protest, we needed to bring this to an end. There was so much suffering and so much agony. On the outside what was taking place was that the Republican Movement had rebuilt. This time more politically aware than they were before 1975. On the streets there were mass protest on behalf - there wasn’t mass protests actually - not until the Hunger Strikes. The common phrase in the H Blocks at that time was “Does anyone care?”, “Does anyone know?”. The first Hunger Strike was called and it wasn’t long before the world knew, and we called on the world for support, to support our five demands.
The Hunger Strike which I was involved in, myself and Bobby decided - Bobby Sands - we decided to call the Hunger Strike. Tommy was on the Hunger Strike with me. We negotiated what we believed was the settlement of that Hunger Strike.
I don’t know if anyone here has any experience of a hunger strike, but it is an agonising, torturous, smelly way to die. I remember the first thought I had the first day I was on hunger strike. I was lying in a shitty cell, on a piece of mattress, on a wet floor, cold, hungry - and I’d been that way for over three years. But the first day I went on hunger strike was the day I looked back at yesterday and thought ‘well, that wasn’t too bad’. I mean this is the day you start to die. Yesterday I could have lived for a year, two years, three years, I could have stuck it for that length of time. But today is hell, today is the day you die.
When you go on hunger strike, if you have any excess fat on your body, your body will eat it. Once the excess fat is gone, and believe me there wasn’t too many fat men in the H Blocks of Long Kesh, it then eats at the muscle and your muscles starts to go. Once all the muscle is gone all that is left is flesh and bone. The body is a fantastic machine, it will keep itself alive. So the next thing to go is the brain. Your body starts to live off your brain, it takes the glucose from your brain. Once that starts that’s the critical period. That’s when your eyesight starts to go, your smell, all your senses start to go. Then you go into a coma. Then you die. Agonisingly, an agonising death. And an agonising death for a family member, a parent, a mother, to sit and have to watch this. That is the reality of hunger strike.
We believed that we had settled the first Hunger Strike. It turned out that we were betrayed in that settlement and that led to the second Hunger Strike. Now the second Hunger Strike, as you all know, cost ten men their lives. Ten men died on it. The Hunger Strikes ended. Now I don’t want to get in too deeply into that, just keep it brief because I think the next few points are the most important points that I am trying to make.
The Hunger Strike is so important to the struggle. It was part of the struggle, part of our struggle to bring about a 32 county democratic socialist Republic. But to be honest with you the day I called the Hunger Strike was the day to end the prison protest. That was the main decision, to end the prison protest, to end the struggle in the jails.
The struggle then went on until the next major development, which was the Hume-Adams document. Now I don’t know if any of you have read the Hume-Adams document, but I certainly haven’t read it and I’ve searched for it, looked for it, but I’ve never come across the Hume-Adams document. If anyone has it would they please give me it, because I have never come across it. The Hume-Adams document went on to the thing we now call the Good Friday Agreement.
Now I went to jail, spent the last thirty years of my life, trying to bring down an unjust, undemocratic, immoral, corrupt, sectarian statelet set up by the British. The Good Friday Agreement has brought about that same state, the thirty year struggle did not end the injustice of that statelet. We still have the RUC. The slogans were on the walls ‘Disband the RUC’, then it became ‘Reform the RUC’. Some time ago they brought a discredited conservative politician here to sort out the policing problem - the ‘policing problem’. The new in word, by the way, with the RUC now is ‘transist’, they are ‘transisting”. So the next slogan goes on the wall is that the “RUC are transisting”, into what I don’t know, but they are no longer to be disbanded.
Stormont is still there, but it is a Stormont with Republicans in it. Stormont has not changed. The whole apparatus of the Stormont regime is still there, it is still controlled by the British, it is still unjust, it is still cruel. The RUC is still there. The whole civil service are still there, the same civil servants who controlled the shoot-to-kill policy, who controlled the plastic bullets, who controlled the H Blocks of Long Kesh, who took responsibility for ten men dying. It is all still there. But, saviour of saviours, we have two Sinn Féin ministers there, who happen to close hospitals.
The sad thing about all this is that the British set this up. This is the British answer to the Republican problem in Ireland. It’s a British solution, it’s not an Irish solution. It’s not a solution that we have control of. There are people up there and the British ministers are handing money out. But the whole thing is built on sand. First of all the statelet still exists. Secondly, whenever Tony Blair, or whoever comes after him, decides - or the Unionists decide - to walk out, the Good Friday Agreement is finished. It’s all finished. So the whole thing is built on sand. The unfortunate thing about it is that there are people who actually believe that we have a settlement, that we have a settlement to our problem, to your problem, to my problem, to everybody’s problem in Ireland. And I don’t believe that.
I was in London a few weeks ago. I was asked over by a group of people, the Kurds and the Turkish people, who are in Turkish prisons. Why I was there was they asked Sinn Féin for support. Thirty two people have died, twelve of them hunger strikers in Turkish jails. Sinn Féin’s response to these people was “we do not get involved in the internal politics of another country”. God help us all. That’s what the response was “we do not get involved in the internal politics of another country”. To me that is a total betrayal. [applause].
On the Falls Road, the heart of the resistance struggle in Ireland to bring about a socialist republic, we have employers who are paying women #2 an hour, who are paying men #20 a day for working on building sites in all types of weather with no security that they will have a job tomorrow morning. I know men who went in to work for a day and because the people did not like their face they were sacked. They were sacked because the person who was employing did not like their face. These same people are employing a lot of ex-prisoners, a lot of these people done 10, 15, 20 years in prison. These same people, these rogue builders, are now millionaires who own five bars on the Falls Road. These are the same people that built the new Sinn Féin office, with slave labour. The new Sinn Féin office on the Falls Road, a real luxury building; and the local paper, the Andytown News, these same people built that. These are the people who are paying men #20 a day and who are abusing them and sacking them and it’s so totally unbelievable and so disgusting, but that’s what they are getting away with.
Now it took me a long time within the Republican Movement, if you are in a movement for over thirty years you have a certain amount of loyalty to it. When the Good Friday Agreement was agreed upon I had my doubts, I had my reservations. But I stayed there for a long time, I stayed there for far too long while people like Tommy McKearney and Anthony McIntyre were sticking their necks out. Until I began to see and open my eyes and see what was going on. The best friend I had all my life was Gerry Adams. This isn’t anything personal against Gerry Adams, although I have been accused of it, of mounting a personal campaign against Gerry Adams. I am not. Gerry Adams happens to wear an Armani suit, I attack everybody in Sinn Féin who wears Armani suits, because the working class doesn’t have them. [applause]
So I joined the Republican Writers Group and began to write. I began to write about the excesses of these rogue builders. I began to write about a old Republican, who I knew all my life, who the IRA and Sinn Féin evicted out of his house, because the British government was offering #50,000 of a grant to Sinn Féin open it as drop-in centre for prisoners. I was an ex-prisoner and I’d have been saying to them “Fuck your fifty thousand, the Republican is more important to me than fifty thousand pounds”. [applause]
So really what we are doing, and it wasn’t easy for people like us to do this. I mean we have lost so-called friends. I wouldn’t say we have lost comrades, because you don’t lose a comrade unless he dies, or she dies. We have lost so-called friends because of our actions and, as I say, it is not easy to do what we do. Myself and Anthony travelled all over, we went to meet the families of the hunger strikers from London. We were arrested on the way in and probably will be arrested again. They won’t let us in to America. What we are trying to do is cause a debate. We have an alternative to the Good Friday Agreement, we have an alternative to the British settlement in Ireland. We have it, the people have it. It has to be a socialist alternative, it has to be a republican alternative. That’s what we are trying to do. We are trying to start a great debate, we have one organised in Belfast next week and I hope to God it is as well attended as this, I somehow doubt it, but I hope it is.
To end I want to thank you all for coming and I really appreciate you listening to me. Thanks very much.