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Former IRA commander Brendan Hughes says he would take part in Troubles truth forum

Former IRA man Brendan Hughes. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Connla Young

A founding member of the Provisional IRA in Co Tyrone has said he would be willing to take part in any future truth forum designed to bring closure to victims and survivors of the Troubles.

Brendan Hughes, a former 'Officer Commanding' in east Tyrone, was one of the organisation's most trusted members in the 1970s.

After helping to establish the Provos in Tyrone he went on to become a leading member and ran a secret unit answering directly to the group's leadership.

Known for his skills as an organiser, he masterminded the audacious 1973 breakout from Mountjoy Prison in Dublin when three senior IRA figures escaped in a hijacked helicopter.

He later fell foul of elements within the IRA's then leadership after he carried out several armed robberies for personal gain.

The Tyrone man served three separate stretches in prison totalling more than 22 years.

In a frank interview with The Irish News to coincide with the publication of a new book about his secret life inside the IRA, 'Up Like a Bird - the rise and fall of an IRA commander', Mr Hughes spoke about his own regrets and willingness to help others find peace.

As the IRA's campaign grew in intensity and support throughout the 1970s so too did the reputation of its East Tyrone Brigade and those involved with it.

Mr Hughes, a member of the Official IRA who shifted allegiance to the fledgling Provisional movement on the morning internment was introduced in 1971, climbed through the ranks of the organisation eventually taking on a role with General Headquarters as a Director of Intelligence.

At the height of his activity he says he turned down a seat on the IRA's ruling 'Army Council'.

The veteran republican was eventually sidelined by the organisation in the mid-1970s after taking part in robberies for his own benefit - an action he deeply regrets.

Now aged 74, Mr Hughes recently returned to Tyrone to talk about his life in the IRA.

And it appears old habits die hard.

Arriving at the appointed meeting place early, the former IRA man is perched at an upstairs window giving him a clear view of all comings and goings.

In relaxed mood, he sips on a latte and casually recounts how the building next door was once blown up by a determined IRA man after an earlier failed attempt.

He goes on to explain how after several years of operating with the Provos he eventually became battle weary and wanted a break with his wife and children.

Having stepped away from the frontline for a time he asked the republican movement for some money to be with his family.

After being offered just £300 by a senior IRA man he took matters into his own hands by carrying out a robbery for personal gain netting an unexpected £130,000.

The operation was a major breach of IRA rules.

“All I wanted was £3,000 or £4,000 just to get out and not to have to worry for three or four months and then to come back and start fresh,” he said.

“I didn’t do it to get rich, I did it to get a break,” he said.

“What you would normally call good luck was in fact bad luck.

"It would equally be one of the biggest regrets of my life, if not the biggest one.

"At the time people lost respect for me. Respect is earned, that was the worst part of it, I let a lot of people down."

Mr Hughes says the only property he ever owned was a small house in Belfast acquired in the years after he was married.

After carrying out the 'homer' heist he was forced to go 'on the run' and at one stage was wanted by state forces on both sides of the border as well as his former IRA comrades, who he believes were going to kill him.

Looking back Mr Hughes believes the Provos had a right to "sanction" him over the affair but with a wry smile suggests the sentence passed was extreme.

"The IRA were entitled to sanction me, I broke the rules," he said.

"But having said that, summary execution was a stiff penalty for one robbery.

"After all, they had taken up to £60,000 from that robbery."

He said that the Provisionals have never officially approached him to establish his version of events and explained how he had tried to "find another way around" the problem but was arrested before a chance arose.

Mr Hughes, who describes himself as a republican, said he is now firmly in favour of pursuing a united Ireland through peaceful means.

"I'm unapologetically in favour of peace," he said.

"I have heard eloquent words spoken and have spoken eloquent words over graves.

"When you have delivered a folded flag to a widow with empty eyes flanked by two or three children - who would want to go back to that?"

He believes Irish unity can now be achieved through the ballot box.

"I can't support violence," he said.

"In my opinion we are just one more vote away from what everybody was fighting for so why would we start killing people or sending our children out to kill people when we can do it with a vote.

"It does not seem logical."

Looking back on his time in the IRA he reveals that he has personal regrets, although he is reluctant to discuss them in detail.

“I have serious regrets but it’s not the time to talk about it,” he said.

“If you are in charge of a unit and have a life in the palm of your hand and you have to make a decision - I made a few bad ones and some of the bad ones I would not want to talk about and I do regret."

He confides that he has reservations about what was ultimately achieved during his years as an active republican.

"If on the morning of internment I had walked out the door and met someone and they had said 'here is what you will achieve and here's what it is going to cost you' - I would have made my lunch up and gone to work," he said.

"But having said that I can't say I regret that I had an opportunity to defend my community and I would do it again.

"I am not sure what we achieved was it worth one life never mind thousands of lives?"

He said he would urge any young person thinking of joining a paramilitary group to reconsider.

"The minute he joins an organisation he opens a door and steps through it and he may never step back," he said.

"All I would ask him to do is think.

"Before I joined the 'Ra I used to say 'I would have loved to be about in the second world war' - I know some of these young people say it (the Troubles) missed them, 'I wish I had been about'.

"They are labouring under an illusion, they should not step through that door.

"I'm not criticising them, that's how I look at it, that's how they should look at it."

Mr Hughes, who describes himself as being "addicted to politics" believes unionists can be persuaded to consider a united Ireland.

"If we put as much effort into reconciling with the Protestant community as bombing and shooting them I think we might get somewhere at this stage," he said.

While opposed to the British government's current legacy plans, which include a defacto amnesty for participants in the Troubles, Mr Hughes is in favour of a truth forum and would be willing to play his part.

"I would be the first in line," he said.

"If anyone wanted to know anything about what I was involved in I would be there.

"Everybody should come out and say 'we did it and that's why we did it'."

He also spoke about his commitment to reconciliation.

"I feel very strongly about truth and reconciliation because there will be no reconciliation until the truth is revealed," he said.

"It is only when we can come to terms with the truth that you can reconcile your differences with other people.

"It was a dirty little colonial war and nobody came out winners."

"It cost everybody something, it's been an unsatisfactory end to the whole thing."

'Up Like a Bird - the rise and fall of an IRA commander' by Brendan Hughes, with Douglas Dalby, is published by Time Warp Books and is available from and bookshops.

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