“Welcome to my cell,” says ex-IRA prisoner, Brendan Hughes, as he opens the door of his tiny, threadbare flat on the Falls Road. “Sometimes, I’ve sat here crying for a week. I think of all my comrades’ suffering and I don’t even want to go out. You never really leave prison.”
Hughes killed and saw his friends die too. A former ‘officer commanding’ the Belfast Brigade, he’s a living legend among republicans. Small and swarthy with a mop of black hair, he was known as ‘the Dark’.
His bombs reduced the city to rubble; his gun battles with the British entered republican folklore; he spent 13 years in jail and 53 days on hunger-strike. His best friend was Gerry Adams. Hughes, 57, now lives on disability benefit in Divis Tower – the only part of the flats’ complex not bulldozed.
Over the past 35 years, around 15,000 republicans have been imprisoned on both sides of the Border. On release, those close to the Sinn Féin leadership usually fare best. A minority secure paid community jobs; the rest are employed in IRA owned or supporting bars and taxi-depots.
While some ex-prisoners start businesses independently, the IRA gives others businesses to run. But many former prisoners who – for personal or political reasons – are outside the loop, face greater difficulties.
Last week, an ex-IRA prisoner was one of three men charged in connection with the hijacking of a vodka lorry in Co Meath. Former security force members and prison officers received generous retirement and redundancy payments from the state. “We were decommissioned with nothing,” says Hughes. “IRA men and women, who gave everything to this struggle, got poverty, premature death, and mental problems in return.”
It’s the untold story of the Troubles, he claims: “People stay quiet out of loyalty to the movement.” Money never mattered to him, he says: “I was offered £50,000 to become an informer. I told them £50 million wouldn’t sway me. But it’s hard to see ex-prisoners destitute when the leadership are so wealthy and have holiday homes.”
Hughes mentions Kieran Nugent, the first IRA man on the Blanket protest in Long Kesh. “Kieran died in 2000. They called him a ‘river rat’ because he spent his last days drinking by the river in Poleglass.
“Why didn’t somebody in the movement not see he’d problems and help him? He was the bravest of the brave. The screws ordered him to wear the prison uniform and he replied, ‘You’ll have to nail it to my back.'”
Research suggests a third of prisoners suffer broken relationships. Hughes had a baby daughter and his wife was pregnant with their son when he was arrested. “My wife became involved with another man while I was in prison. The lads inside told me to give her a hard time.
“I called her to the jail and told her there was no problem – she was young and deserved a bit of happiness. She always said the war was my number one priority and she was right. I was selfish. I neglected my family. When I got out of jail, I went to her house and shook her partner’s hand.” Hughes is close to his grown-up daughter but has no relationship with his son.
He was released from prison without skills or qualifications. He began labouring. “A big west Belfast contractor paid us £20 a day. I tried to organise a strike but the other ex-POWs were so desperate, they wouldn’t agree. One of the bosses said ‘Brendan, we’ll give you £25 a day but don’t tell the others’.
“I told him to stick it up his arse, and I never went back. I wrote an article about it for ‘Republican News’ but it was heavily censored. People we’d fought for exploited us, and the movement let them.” Hughes never considered crime – “I’m not a thief” – but doesn’t blame those who do “so long as they target only big business”.
Prison left him with arthritis and weakened his immune system. He’s had pneumonia and heart problems, and suffers depression. “After jail, no-one mentioned counselling. I’d to arrange it myself. They say I’ve post-traumatic stress. The hunger-strikers’ faces are always before me.”
He speaks of dislocation after jail: “Everything was different. I went for a walk, just to be on my own. The old streets were gone and I got lost in the new streets. A man had to bring me home. Everything was noisy. I hate crowds. I only go to the pub in the afternoon when it’s quiet.”
Pictures of Che Guevara – laughing, smoking, drinking coffee – dot the living-room. “My brother is taking me to Cuba. The revolution improved ordinary people’s lives there. It was a waste of time here.”
Beneath a picture of the Sacred Heart, is a photo of two tanned, smiling young men in Long Kesh, arms around each other – Hughes and Adams. “I loved Gerry. I don’t anymore, but I keep the photos to remind me of the good times.”
Willie Gallagher from Strabane joined the Fianna at 13. Two years later he joined the IRA – “I lied about my age”. At 15, he was arrested with a gun. He spent 18 of his next 20 years in jail.
“I don’t feel I lost out because I’d no life to lose. I was the youngest in jail and my comrades spoilt me rotten. I remember digging a tunnel for an escape and thinking it a great adventure.” By now, Gallagher was with the INLA.
“At 20, he embarked on a 50-day hunger-strike after beatings by prison officers: “I lost my eyesight. It took me 18 months to recover. Then, I watched the 10 hunger-strikers die. Such brutality damaged me emotionally. I left jail at 25 and wasn’t interested in a normal life. I was full of bitterness. There was no point in killing Brits in ones and twos – I wanted to kill lots of them.
“I planted a no-warning bomb in a pub the security forces frequented. Then I went home, got washed and headed into town. Twenty people could have been killed and it wouldn’t have fizzed on me.” No-one died but 30 people were injured.
Gallagher went back to jail. His first marriage broke up when he was inside but he remarried within a year of his 1993 release. “My heart never hardened in my personal life, but my reputation means my wife’s friends think I’m aggressive. ‘Would Willie hit you?’ they ask.”
Compared to other prisoners, Gallagher, 48, is lucky. His wife owned her own home – they now have two children – and he secured a paid community job. It’s also harder for those whose don’t come from a republican family, “but my brothers were involved – two did 10 years – so I’d a lot of support.”
He runs a prisoners’ group, Teach na Failte. Funding has been suspended pending an official investigation amidst allegations of criminality which the group denies.
Gallagher has been arrested and questioned following a bank robbery in Strabane. The getaway car was bought under the name Robin Banks. “I wasn’t involved but if ex-prisoners were, good luck to them. I’ve no problem with cigarette or alcohol heists either. People who made enormous sacrifices in jail were left with nothing.
“I know one guy who was very fit and always training before he went into jail but he turned to drink and drugs on release and was found dead at 40. If former political prisoners’ records were expunged, they’d have far better employment opportunities and life wouldn’t be so hard for many.” Gallagher has no doubts about his own past: “It’s better to fight and lose than not to fight at all.”
Tommy McKearney from the Moy, Co Tyrone, served 16 years for a UDR man’s murder. One of his brothers was shot dead by the SAS, and another brother and an uncle were killed by loyalists while he was in jail.
“When I got out my father took me to see my brothers’ graves. But what struck me was the graves of the post-mistress and the baker. I couldn’t believe all the changes in our small community. The world had moved on without me. Many prisoners feel lost for so long.”
McKearney now runs Expac, a Monaghan-based group for ex-prisoners in Border areas. “There’s no ideal time to go to jail, but it’s probably best in your mid-20s. Jail stunts teenagers’ emotional development and prison is very hard in your 40s or 50s because you realise how little time is left.
“Serving more than four years affects people. They start to lose contact with the outside world and all but close relatives. After 10, they’re institutionalised. It’s like marathon runners ‘hitting the wall’. After a certain distance, the battle gets too much physically and psychologically.”
Ex-prisoners often feel their relatives are strangers and they left their real ‘family’ in jail. Those who were single when they went to jail, then “play catch-up” with children and mortgages in their 40s and 50s, McKearney says. “At retirement time, when life should be easing, they’re up to their necks in mortgages and debt.”
The situation has improved since the ceasefire, but ex-prisoners still face employment discrimination, he says. They’re officially barred from civil-service jobs and unofficially from many others. “How many become teachers or journalists?” McKearney asks. “I mightn’t reasonably expect to be able to join the gardai but I think I should be eligible for a job as local librarian.”
Even if ex-prisoners slip through the door, “it’s just like with women – there’s a glass ceiling”. Neither the Equality Authority nor the North’s Equality Commission recognise ex-prisoners as a vulnerable group, he says. “An employer can bin an ex-prisoner’s application form, admit it, and the law provides no protection.”
Low-paid jobs are no better: “A supermarket can draw up a list of 20 candidates for shelf-stackers and cashiers. Its head of security, an ex-Special Branch man, says ‘get rid of numbers one and seven’.”
The Special Branch also visit employers, demanding ex-prisoners are sacked, he says. “I was labouring and they ordered my boss to get rid of me. He told them to get lost, but 99% of employers wouldn’t be so principled.”
Still, it’s easier in Border areas than in parts of country where there’s hostility to republicanism and a smaller black/illegal economy. Ex-prisoners are usually barred from the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where many would like to begin new lives.
Anthony McIntyre, who served 18 years imprisonment, says: “I laugh when I hear about an ‘IRA pension plan’. The IRA offered me a Christmas loan and nothing else when I was released. I’d two kids and, I’m not ashamed to say, I had to shop-lift to feed and clothe them.”
Today, Brendan Hughes won’t attend any 1916 parade but he’ll privately pay tribute at the IRA Belfast Brigade monument. “I keep wondering ‘what it was all about?'” he says. “The doctors tell me not to drink but I do. It eases the pain, it doesn’t kill it.” A picture of the hunger-strikers hangs in Hughes’ hallway. ‘Soldiers of our past, heroes of our future’, it says. Somehow, it doesn’t seem that way.
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With many thanks to: Antaine Mac Cathmhaoil for the original posting.