Excerpt from Hughes no longer toes the Provo line, interview with Niall Stanage
Hughes has only recently begun to voice these criticisms openly in the recent past. “There’s an old cliché in the republican movement: ‘stay within the army line.’ That’s what I did, but I was making no progress whatsoever,” he said.
Even so, his first public pronouncements were circumspect. Now that has changed. The final straw came when Real IRA man Joseph O’Connor was shot dead in Ballymurphy in October.
“When people get into positions of power, and start enjoying the trappings of power, people like Joe O’Connor get killed in the streets,” Hughes commented bluntly.
No paramilitary group has accepted responsibility for the killing, and the security forces have declined to say who they think is to blame. Such a convenient silence doesn’t wash with Hughes.
“If that’s right, then let’s have a bloody inquiry, because it means there’s a bunch of men running around Ballymurphy killing people and nobody knows who they are.”
So Hughes thinks the Provisional IRA killed O’Connor? “I do, yes. I feel disgusted, I feel hurt, and I feel it’s a total contradiction of everything Sinn Féin are saying. Everybody knows who done it.”
Hughes went to O’Connor’s funeral and helped carry his coffin. In the clannish world of Belfast republicanism, it was seen as an important gesture, though Hughes pointed out that he was expressing his opposition to O’Connor being killed, not support for the Real IRA.
“Why didn’t Gerry Adams go to his funeral?” he asked. “He was one of his constituents. Joseph O’Connor was a republican who was shot.”
As allegation and counter-allegation flew in the wake of the killing, mainstream republicans mounted pickets on the homes of Anthony McIntyre and Tommy Gorman, two non-aligned dissenters. Hughes was not impressed.
“Anthony McIntyre and Tommy Gorman came out with a totally honest appraisal of the situation and they were picketed. I see paranoia [within] the leadership; anybody who criticises must be condemned, there must be no debate, ‘we must not be questioned’. We have something that is almost fascism developing out of this, and that is scary.”
Disturbed by the anger he had seen among young Real IRA supporters at O’Connor’s funeral, Hughes also realised that a full-blown feud between RIRA and the Provisionals was a possibility. He and veteran Republican Billy McKee offered their services as intermediaries.
Word soon came back from the Provos that Hughes was “not acceptable”. It was the most pointed of snubs.
“I have spent 30 years of my life in this struggle,” he said. “I know what I wanted 30 years ago, and I don’t see anything close to it at the moment. I just see the movement which I spent my life in becoming part of the corrupt, rotten regime which we tried to destroy.”
Does he feel betrayed?
“I do, yes.”