As leader of the Belfast brigade of the IRA, Hughes led one of the most effective campaigns seen during the Troubles. But he also endured the worst of the British prison regime at Long Kesh, spending 13 years in jail.
Hughes spent 53 days on hunger strike in the famous H-Blocks in 1980, was Officer Commanding (O/C) of the IRA Volunteers in Long Kesh prison during the struggle over criminalisation and the recognition of political prisoner status. He led the ‘blanket’ protest that developed into the 1980 hunger strike. He went on to lead the first hunger strike, which was called off after 53 days amid hopes of a deal with the British government.
Bobby Sands took over as O/C and in 1981 ordered another hunger strike which first claimed his own life and then nine more republicans. Hughes was released from jail in 1986 and resumed active republicanism again but lost faith with the Sinn Féin leadership in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, famously dismissing them as ‘the Armani suit brigade’.
He accused them of betraying core republican principles and their working class background. Despite the fallout a former comrade loyal to the Sinn Féin leadership said: ‘There was still a lot of respect and fondness for Brendan despite all the things he said in recent years.’
In later years, Hughes suffered loss of sight and other health complications, a legacy of the harsh conditions he endured during the blanket and hunger strike protests in the H-blocks. He became a prolific writer and often used the letters pages of Belfast newspapers to contribute to the political debate. He spoke of how numerous ex-prisoners experienced lasting physical and psychological difficulties.
Thousands of mourners attended the funeral of ‘The Dark’ or ‘Darkie’ – so called because of his dark features – in one of the biggest republican funerals seen in Belfast for some years. Over two thousand people followed his coffin, draped in the Irish Tricolour, topped with black beret and gloves.
His coffin was carried from his home in west Belfast to St Peter’s Catholic Cathedral in the Divis Street area of the city. Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams was among those who carried the coffin.
Photo: Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes in Long Kesh internment camp. Photograph: Alan Lewis/Photopressbelfast.co.uk