By Ed Moloney
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After ‘the long war’ in Ireland came to an end, very few paramilitary leaders on either side spoke openly about their role in that bloody conflict, but in Voices from the Grave, two leading figures from opposing sides reveal their involvement in bombings, shootings and killings on one condition: that their stories were kept secret until after their deaths. In extensive interviews given to researchers from Boston College, Brendan Hughes and David Ervine spoke with astonishing openness about their turbulent, violent lives.
Hughes was a legend in the Republican movement. An ‘operator’, a gun-runner and mastermind of some of the most savage IRA violence of the Troubles, he was a friend and close ally of Gerry Adams and was by his side during the most brutal years of the conflict.
David Ervine was the most substantial political figure to emerge from the world of Loyalist paramilitaries. A former Ulster Volunteer Force bomber and confidante of its long-time leader Gusty Spence, Ervine helped steer Loyalism’s gunmen towards peace, persuading the UVF’s leaders to target IRA and Sinn Fein activists and push them down the road to a ceasefire.
Now their stories have been woven into a vivid narrative which provides compelling insight into a secret world and events long hidden from history.
Brendan Hughes was there at the very beginning, at one of the places where the Provisional IRA first saw the light of day. Republican mythology has it that there was only one birthplace, Bombay Street on 15 August 1969, a narrow terrace of small mill-workers’ homes crouched, as if for protection, under the tower of a Redemptorist monastery set right in the heart of the Clonard district of West Belfast. There is a lot of truth to that, but what happened in Bombay Street on that late summer afternoon some forty years ago is only part of the story, only a partial explanation of what the Provisional IRA was and why it came into being.
Bombay Street was at the very borderline between the Catholic–Nationalist Falls Road and the Protestant–Loyalist Shankill Road, two of the largest of Belfast’s many divided ghettos and the scene over the previous century or so of intermittent and often vicious sectarian violence. The date, 15 August, was the Feast of the Assumption in the Catholic Church’s calendar, the equivalent in the Northern Nationalist community of the Orangemen’s ‘Twelfth of July’, and the growing tension and violence that had spread like wildfire from Derry to Belfast in the previous few days spilled once more onto the streets of Clonard.
In the afternoon, a mob of angry Protestants from the Shankill area surged through the district determined to burn down the monastery and much of the surrounding area. There was a widely held conviction among the Loyalists that IRA gunmen in the past had used the monastery’s spires as a sniper’s platform from where they could pick off people in the Shankill at will. There was hand-to-hand fighting, many petrol bombs were tossed into Catholic homes and some of the Protestants were armed. Shots rang out and a fifteen-year-old boy, Gerald McAuley, fell fatally wounded. A member of the IRA’s youth wing, the Fianna, he was the first Republican activist to be killed in what would soon become known as the Troubles.1 There was minimal resistance though from Clonard’s traditional defenders, the IRA. For some time now in the hands of a largely Marxist leadership in far-off Dublin, the IRA high command favoured political methods over the gun and the military side of the organisation had been run down. It was widely believed, for instance, that much of the IRA’s weaponry had been sold to the Free Wales Army and while this explanation was probably apocryphal, it was beyond doubt that the IRA had next to no guns to defend areas such as Clonard. The Protestant mob had virtually a free hand and soon Bombay Street was on fire from one end to the other. By the next morning all that was left was a series of charred, blackened shells.
Within a few months the IRA would split into an Official and a Provisional IRA, names that were more the invention of the media than the choice of their leaders, and while there were significant political and ideological differences between the two factions – Republicans in the rural West and South of Ireland as well as many in the North were far more conservative than the Dublin Marxists – there was little doubt that the IRA’s failure to defend Catholic areas such as Bombay Street had been the catalyst to bring long simmering internal discord to the surface. The militant Provisional wing that emerged from the split chose as its icon a phoenix rising from the ashes of Bombay Street, picked deliberately to symbolise a determination that such a thing would never happen again.
While the burning of Bombay Street embodied the vulnerability of many Catholics in places such as West Belfast and was a symbol of victimhood that made marvellous propaganda for the new Provisional IRA, it was not true to say that the IRA in Belfast had been entirely inoperative during those turbulent and violent days. A day or so before Loyalist petrol bombs had razed Bombay Street, in an incident that Lord Scarman, the British judge chosen to probe the violent events of August 1969, would call, ‘the only clear evidence of IRA participation’2 in the events, a shooting took place that would herald another, more central characteristic of the new Provisional IRA: its determination to repay Unionist, and later British, violence in the same coinage or more. And Brendan Hughes helped make it happen.
Hughes was not a member of the IRA at the time, although in his interviews with Boston College he talked almost as if he were, possibly because the incident would be long remembered in Republican lore as one of the few examples of IRA defiance during those unsettled and brutal days. A seaman in the Merchant Navy, Hughes was back in his native West Belfast on a break between voyages when the trouble began – and what would happen in the following days meant he would never go back to sea. His return to his native city came at one of those moments when history turns.
A year or so of civil rights agitation by Catholic Nationalists seeking an end to Unionist-imposed discrimination in jobs and housing, the scrapping of gerrymandering and the restoration of equal voting rights had galvanised hardline Protestant and Loyalist opposition, much of it mobilised by a young, fiery preacher by the name of Ian Paisley. In the eyes of Paisley and his followers the civil rights campaign was merely cunning camouflage for an IRA plot to take Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into a Catholic-dominated all-Ireland state and they were pledged to oppose it at every opportunity. Throughout 1969, clashes between civil rights marchers and the North’s police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) on the one hand, and on the other between civil rights marchers and the Paisleyites, had grown in number and violent intensity. By the time the Orange marching season reached its height, in July and August 1969, Northern Ireland was on the edge of a dangerous precipice. On 12 August, during the annual parade of the Protestant Apprentice Boys of Derry, the tinderbox exploded into flames. Serious rioting between the Loyalist marchers and Nationalists from the Bogside, a Catholic slum that lay like a besieging army encamped under the walls of Derry, soon turned into a vicious clash between the Bogsiders and the RUC.
As the skies of Derry were darkened by volleys of stones and petrol bombs tossed at the RUC, and CS gas fired by the police enveloped the Bogside in a toxic fog, civil rights leaders acted to relieve the pressure on the Bogsiders. Orders went out to mobilise their followers in Belfast, Dungannon, Coalisland, Dungiven, Newry and Armagh, where protests and pickets were staged outside police stations. The decision to deploy civil rights supporters outside Derry was intended to draw the RUC away from the Bogside, to relieve pressure on the exhausted rioters, but its effect was like pouring petrol on a bonfire, and the consequences were predictable – the flames spread wildly.
The violence that followed was worst in West Belfast on the night of 14 August. Earlier that day, a company of the British Army, the Prince of Wales’s Own Regiment, had replaced the RUC on the streets of Derry, an admission that the police there had lost control of the situation. The arrival of the troops brought scenes rarely witnessed in Irish history: Catholics welcomed the British soldiers as their saviours and celebrated the withdrawal of the RUC as a famous victory over Unionist rule. But the decision unnerved Protestants and that night in Belfast the guns came out. Protestant mobs surged onto the streets, their anger at events in Derry fuelled by alcohol. One of Ian Paisley’s lieutenants, John McKeague, a Loyalist zealot, had formed the Shankill Defence Association, an early forerunner of the Protestant paramilitaries that would soon sprout everywhere, and he was active mobilising the mobs.
There were clashes in Ardoyne, in North Belfast and on the Falls Road where, in the Conway Street area, Catholic homes were petrol-bombed by Loyalist mobs as the police stood by, either powerless or unwilling to intervene. At one stage a huge Loyalist crowd advanced down Dover Street, at the point where the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road are closest, at a place called Divis Street, and shots were fired from the Catholic side killing a Protestant rioter. Assuming the IRA was responsible, the RUC opened fire, using heavy-calibre Browning machine guns mounted atop Shorland armoured vehicles. Rounds the officers fired bounced off the tarmac outside Donegall Pass RUC station two miles away, adding to a police perception of a wide-scale Republican attack. Almost immediately a nine-year-old Catholic schoolboy, Patrick Rooney, was killed by a police tracer round which pierced his bedroom wall in Divis Tower, the tallest building in a large public-housing complex, and hit him in the head as he lay in bed.3 When the violence finally subsided, four Catholics had been killed by police fire and one Protestant had been shot dead by someone on the Catholic side. The following day, 15 August, saw the Protestant assault on Clonard and the firebombing of Bombay Street and, by that evening, the British Army was on the streets of West Belfast, as well as in Derry. The Troubles were under way.
The extent of IRA involvement in all this was far from clear. The identity or allegiance of the gunman who fired the shot that killed the Protestant rioter in Dover Street is not known. But the IRA had very few weapons, and it is possible an armed civilian was responsible: ‘There was a couple of .303s,* a couple of revolvers, and one Thompson sub-machine gun’ in the IRA’s arsenal that night, Hughes would later recall, hardly enough to protect Catholic Belfast from the rampaging Loyalist mobs. But the IRA’s one Thompson machine gun, a veteran of a previous age, was put to use that night in Divis Street, as Hughes recalled:
… when the Loyalist mobs came down off the Shankill [they] were attacking St Comgall’s school with petrol bombs, stones and everything. I mean, they just wrecked the whole front of the school. I knew the school, I had gone there as a child and I showed ——, the IRA guy who had the Thompson, how to go through the school, through the classrooms [and] up onto the roof. I remember that McKeague, I think it was McKeague† … was leading [the crowds]. I was on top of the roof with —— [and the Protestants] were firing petrol bombs, a massive mob of people, right onto the Falls Road. I was trying to encourage —— to shoot into the crowd [but] he was under orders from Jimmy Sullivan, the O/C [Officer Commanding] of the IRA at that time in the Falls area, not to shoot into the crowd, [but] to fire over their heads. So, he emptied a magazine over their heads which did break the crowd up. They retreated back into the Shankill and we retreated off the roof.
Those were the first authorised shots fired by the IRA in the Troubles, or at least the first that can be authenticated, and the incident at St Comgall’s school illustrated key features of the soon-to-be-born Provisional IRA. In the eyes of its founders, the Provisional IRA was first and foremost a defensive force, created to protect working-class Catholic streets from Unionist assaults, whether these be the work of drunken Loyalist mobs or of official forces, either the police or the part-time Protestant militia, the B Specials. From the orgy of anti-Catholic violence that accompanied the birth of Northern Ireland in 1921 onwards that, much more than fighting to ‘free’ Ireland, was what the IRA in Belfast was primarily supposed to be about. The second feature of the new IRA was a distinct readiness on the part of its early members to meet Loyalist violence on equal terms. The IRA man who refrained from firing ‘into the crowd’ of Protestants from the roof of St Comgall’s school was a role model to few of the new recruits, not least among them Brendan Hughes himself. In August 1969, sectarian fevers were raging and Hughes, somewhat shamefacedly, discovered that the virus had infected his bloodstream:
[In] 1969, when whole streets were burnt out, I found myself in a sort of a conflict … Most of my friends were Protestants. And here Protestants were burning out Catholics. I mean, at one period, one of my friends – a guy called Eddie Dawson – would go to Gaelic football matches with me in Casement Park and would stand for ‘The Soldier’s Song’ which was a big thing for me; he was able to do it and found no problem with it. So, in 1969, when the rioting started on the Grosvenor Road where I lived and homes were attacked, I was conflicted. Protestant homes were attacked around Malt Street and so forth. Now, the [IRA] split had not taken place [at that point]. The Official IRA were on the ground around the Leeson Street area, trying to contain the riots. And I remember coming off the Falls Road and [joining] a gang [that was] headed along Culling tree Road towards Malt Street which was seen as the centre of Loyalism at that period. People’s blood was up; they were angry and it was decided that Protestant homes should be attacked. Around a hundred to a hundred and fifty men were heading towards Malt Street, when we were stopped by the IRA – the Official IRA at the time – and stopped from going in to burn the houses out. But there was a conflict within me at that time – I was with the mob, OK, [but] I was sort of relieved when we were stopped because I knew all the families there and in Little Grosvenor Street near by, although [it would be] true to say there were bigots there who would have cheered the burning of Bombay Street and the other burnings that were taking place. But, as the days passed, a lot of the Protestants in that area began to move out … and within a week or ten days, the whole of the area that I grew up in was totally desolated. I mean whole streets, rows of houses were lying empty, wrecked. And what houses were not wrecked Catholics began to move into … Almost all of the Protestants had moved out.
These were the impulses, sectarian and Defenderist, that helped propel the IRA of 1969 to the most serious schism in the organisation’s recent history. The split took several months to develop, beginning in Belfast where the city’s IRA Brigade assumed a semi-autonomous status, and then spreading southwards as rural and conservative Southern Republicans who had long been bitterly opposed to the left-wing, mostly Dublin leadership, rallied around the disgruntled Belfast men to make common cause. That December, an IRA Army Convention met to discuss the organisation’s political future and when the leadership’s critics were defeated they walked out to form the Provisional IRA. The new leaders had been quietly recruiting in Belfast for weeks, anticipating the coming division, and Brendan Hughes had been talent-spotted early on. Around the time the rift became formal, he decided to join the new group.
… by this stage I had a bit of a reputation of being a hard nut; I was able to fight. The split was about to take place and I was approached by John Joe Magee,‡ who was an ex-paratrooper [in the British Army], about joining … Then my cousin, Charlie Hughes, who I didn’t know was in the IRA, set in motion the procedure of joining up … there was a probation period before you were accepted … I think there was twelve of us at the time [and] we all went to this house on the other side of the Grosvenor Road – it was actually close to where Gusty Spence§ had once lived, and we were brought in, sat down and Joe Cahill¶ came in and advised us of what the whole process of joining the IRA meant, the dangers we would [face] … It was a hard, hard session, and there was an obvious attempt to frighten away the people who could not – or Joe Cahill believed could not – hold the line. So he was pretty hard on the options of what was going to happen and basically it boiled down to: ‘Either you’re going to jail or you’re going to die; that’s what you can look forward to.’ Now, there were two or three of these sessions … and constantly that was the message that was pumped across. By the end of all this, after the third session, there were just five left out of the twelve and we then went through the procedure of being sworn in and we took the oath, your right hand up to God, and you swore to abide by the rules and regulations of the Irish Republican Army. So, then, I then became a Volunteer in D Company, Second Battalion, Belfast Brigade.
Notes – 1
1 David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, and Chris Thornton, Lost Lives, pp. 38–9.
2 Scarman Report, paragraph 1.23.
3 McKittrick et al., Lost Lives, pp. 34–5.
* A .303 is a .303-calibre Lee Enfield breech-loading rifle, which until the 1960s was British Army standard issue and a popular IRA weapon in the 1950s and 1960s.
† John McKeague, Loyalist activist and at the time Chairman of the Shankill Defence Association. He was shot dead by the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) in January 1982.
‡ Later head of the IRA’s spy-catchers, the Internal Security Unit; now deceased.
§ Founder and leader of the modern Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a major Loyalist para military group.
¶ Later the Belfast Commander of IRA and Chief of Staff; now deceased.
Winston Churchill’s famous observation that not even the Great War of 1914–18 could diminish the integrity of Ireland’s quarrel, much less make ‘the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone’ less intrusive, could have been applied just as easily to Ireland in the years immediately after the end of the Second World War and, especially, to the city of Belfast where, in June 1948, Brendan Hughes was born.
Superficially, Ireland seemed to be more at peace, North and South, than for many years; but appearances were deceptive. It was a peace born more of exhaustion and defeat than anything else. For the Nationalist minority in the North and a rump of uncompromising Republicans – the detritus of two traumatic and violent splits in the IRA’s ranks – there had been no rapprochement with the dispensation imposed after the Anglo-Irish War of 1919–21. Rather, each had, in their different ways, been suppressed and contained: the Nationalists both corralled and confined by the Unionist government of Northern Ireland and seemingly abandoned by their Southern compatriots, and the IRA’s irreconcilables undone by their own incompetence and fiercely put down by successive Dublin governments.
In the Southern state – known first as the Free State but since Eamon de Valera’s first term in government as ‘Eire’ – acceptance of the institutions created by the 1921 Treaty was at a wider level than ever. In Ireland’s long search for independence the favoured approach had always swung back and forth between politics and violence and by the mid-1940s, the pendulum had moved decisively away from the gun, marking the end of a turbulent chapter in Ireland’s stormy history. The Easter Rising of 1916 had been put down with such force by the British that its defeat became merely the prelude to another bloodstained effort to end Britain’s control of Ireland’s affairs, just as its authors had intended. The subsequent war between the British and the new Irish Republican Army had been brutal but, by the standards of what was to happen during Brendan Hughes’s life, mercifully short. It began in 1919, not long after Sinn Fein’s demand for an independent Irish Republic had been endorsed by the Irish electorate, and ended in 1921, first with a truce and then in negotiations in London, the Irish side led by the IRA’s military genius, Michael Collins, and the British by the wily and deceitful Welshman, David Lloyd George. The result was a treaty that gave Ireland dominion-style independence within the Commonwealth but retained the British monarch as head of state. One aspect stuck in Republican throats: an oath of loyalty to the Crown that the Irish government and members of the new parliament in Dublin would have to swear. Prodded by military hardliners, de Valera reluctantly led a substantial section of the IRA and Sinn Fein in opposition to the Treaty and a vicious civil war followed. But after less than a year of fighting, the anti-Treaty IRA was defeated. De Valera led the rump, ‘The Legion of the Rearguard’, into a new, non-violent party, Fianna Fail, and eventually, by 1936, into government.
What was left of the IRA on the eve of the Second World War regarded both states in Ireland as illegal entities, imposed by British and ‘Free State’ violence in defiance of the democratic will of the people of Ireland, expressed twice, in the elections of 1918 and in 1921. But by the outbreak of European hostilities in 1939, the IRA had begun to turn its guns away from the Southern state towards the other entity spawned by the Treaty, Northern Ireland. Partition was already a de-facto reality by the time the Treaty negotiations commenced. The 1920 Government of Ireland Act had created two partitioned states in Ireland and the Treaty had given the North the choice of opting out of the new Irish state and choosing instead the version of local Home Rule envisaged in the 1920 Act, which it had done instantly. The pill had been sweetened for the Irish side by a promise given by Lloyd George to the Irish delegation. A Boundary Commission set up to draw Northern Ireland’s borders would, the Irish were led to believe, so dismember the new state that it could not be viable and would eventually fall, no matter what the Unionist leaders tried to do, like a ripe apple into the arms of the South. The Commission was supposed to take into account the feelings of local communities when drawing lines on the map and this surely would mean, Nationalists believed, the exclusion of large slices of Catholic Ulster from the Northern state. Partition thus barely figured in the quarrel between Republicans in the wake of the Treaty or the ensuing civil war.
But Lloyd George had spoken weasel words and the Boundary Commission did nothing of the sort. Its report was never published but the contents were leaked. Northern Ireland would consist of six of the nine counties of Ulster: Antrim, Down, Londonderry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Armagh – but the prize offered to the Unionists came at a price. Tyrone and Fermanagh, as well as Derry, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city, had substantial Catholic majorities, while Londonderry and Armagh had significant Catholic minorities. Catholics would constitute at least a third of Northern Ireland’s population; in Unionist eyes, a serpent had been placed within the bosom of the new state. The Protestants of Ulster had initially opposed partition, preferring to remain an integral, undevolved part of the United Kingdom. Their leader, Edward Carson, had rejected partition a decade earlier, declaring that there could be ‘no permanent resting place between total union and total separation’ from Britain. But a separate parliament had been proposed for Belfast as a compromise between the Unionist and Republican positions, in the belief, or even hope, that one day Irish reunification would be eased.
There was, however, only one way that Unionists could hope to ensure that such a day would never dawn and that was to maintain their political, economic and demographic domination over their Catholic, Nationalist neighbours. To do this, the Unionists resorted to the most readily available and trusted ways of doing so: by encouraging discrimination in jobs and public housing, the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries in places such as Derry, restricting the franchise at council level and by putting in place a harsh system of law and order, complete with heavily armed Protestant militias, with ready access to a panoply of draconian laws, which ranged from internment without trial and floggings through to the banning of political parties, meetings and demonstrations. The seeds of future conflict were sown at the outset and the soil in which they had been planted was fertile and rarely left unwatered.
- The first and more gripping half of this fascinating, important book by Ed Moloney recreates Hughes's IRA career through his later reflections on it.—Irish Times
- This candid analysis of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, as seen through the eyes of two men of violence, is full of revelations ... The memories of both men are vivid, gossipy and informed by an intense moral passion.—Daily Express
- [A] moving new book, which traces the conflict from [Hughes' and Erskine's] often diametrically opposed perspectives ... Moloney's book expertly interweaves the two men's recollections with a detailed narrative of the conflict.—Telegraph
- How do you document the history of a conflict in which illegal organisations are among the central players? Voices from the Grave, by the veteran Northern Ireland correspondent Ed Moloney, is an intriguing attempt to answer that question.—Open Democracy
- On Sale
- Jun 1, 2010
- Page Count
- 544 pages