THE SECOND republican to join the H-Block hunger-strike for political status – a fortnight after Bobby Sands.
Was twenty-five-year-old Francis Hughes, from Bellaghy in South Derry: a determined, committed and totally fearless IRA Volunteer who organised a spectacularly successful series of military operations before his capture, and was once described by the RUC as their ‘most wanted man’ in the North.
Eluding for several years the relentless efforts of the British army, UDR and RUC to track him down, Francis operated boldly throughout parts of Tyrone and north and south Antrim, but particularly in his native South Derry, with a combination of brilliant organisation and extreme daring – until his capture after a shoot-out with the SAS – which earned him widespread popular renown, and won general support for the republican cause, as well as giving him an undisputed reputation as a natural-born soldier and leader.
Francis Hughes was born on February 28th, 1956, the youngest son amongst ten children, into a staunchly republican family which has been solidly rooted, for most of this century, in the townland of Tamlaghtduff, or Scribe Road, as it is otherwise called.
His parents who married in 1939, are Patrick Joseph Hughes, aged 72, a retired small cattle farmer born in the neighbouring town land of Ballymacpeake, and Margaret, aged 68, whose maiden name is McElwee, and who was born in Tamlaghtduff.
A quarter-of-a-mile away from the Hughes’ bungalow, on the other side of the Scribe Road is the home of Thomas and Benedict McElwee – first cousins of Francis. Benedict is currently serving a sentence in the H-Blocks. Thomas – the eldest – embarked on hunger strike on June 8th, and died sixty-two days later on August 8th.
In Tamlaghtduff, as throughout the rest of Bellaghy, sympathy as well as active support for the republican cause runs at a very high level, a fact testified to by the approximately twenty prisoners-of-war from around Bellaghy alone.
Francis was an extremely popular person, both to his family and to his republican colleagues and supporters.
His father recalls that as a boy he was always whistling, joking and singing: a trait which he carried over into his arduous and perilous days as a republican, when he was able to transmit his enthusiasm and optimism both to Volunteers under his command and to Sympathisers who offered them – at great personal risk, food and shelter
It was qualities like these, of uncomplaining tirelessness, of consideration for the morale of those around him, and his ruling wish to lead by example, that have made Francis Hughes one of the most outstanding Irish revolutionary soldiers this war has produced and a man who was enormously respected in his native countryside.
As a boy, Francis went first to St. Mary’s primary school in Bellaghy, and from there to Clady intermediate school three miles away.
He enjoyed school and was a fairly good student whose favourite subjects were history and woodwork. He was not particularly interested in sport, but was very much a lively, outdoor person, who enjoyed messing around on bikes, and later on, in cars.
He enjoyed dancing and regularly went to ceilidh as a young man, even while ‘on the run’, although after ‘wanted’ posters of him appeared his opportunities became less frequent.
His parents recall that Francis was always extremely helpful around the house, and that he was a “good tractor man”.
Leaving school at sixteen, Francis got a job with his sister Vera’s husband, as an apprentice painter and decorator, completing his apprenticeship shortly before ‘going on the run’.
In later days, Francis would often do a spot of decorating for the people whose house he was staying in
On one occasion, shortly after the ‘wanted’ posters of him had been posted up all over South Derry, Francis was painting window frames at the front of the house he was staying in when two jeep-loads of British soldiers drove past. While the other occupants of the house froze in apprehension, Francis waved and smiled at the curious Brits as they passed by, and continued painting.
It was such utter fearlessness, and the ability to brazen his way through, that saved him time and time again during his relatively long career as an active service Volunteer.
On one such occasion, when stopped along with two other Volunteers as they crossed a field, Francis told a Brit patrol that they didn’t feel safe walking the roads, as the IRA were so active in the area. The Brits allowed the trio to walk on, but after a few yards Francis ran back to the enemy patrol to scrounge a cigarette and a match from one of the British soldiers.
A turning point for Francis, in terms of his personal involvement in the struggle, occurred at the age of seventeen, when he and a friend were stopped by British soldiers at Ardboe, in County Tyrone, as they returned from a dance one night.
The pair were taken out of their car and so badly kicked that Francis was bed-ridden for several days. Rejecting advice to make a complaint to the RUC, Francis said it would be a waste of time, but pledged instead to get even with those who had done it, “or with their friends.”
Notwithstanding such a bitter personal experience of British thuggery, and the mental and physical scars it left, Francis’ subsequent involvement in the Irish Republican Army was not based on a motive of revenge but on a clear and abiding belief in his country’s right to national freedom.
During the early part of ‘the troubles’, the ‘Officials’ were relatively strong in the South Derry area and Francis’ first involvement was with them.
However, disillusioned, as were many others, with the ‘Sticks’ unilateral ceasefire in 1972, he left to set up and command an ‘independent’ military unit in the Bellaghy area. About the end of 1973 the entire unit – including Francis – was formally recruited into the IRA.
Francis’ involvement brought him increasingly to the attention of the British army and RUC and he was regularly held for a few hours in Magherafelt barracks and stopped on the road by British patrols; and on one occasion he was held for two days at Ballykelly camp.
As the 1975 IRA/British army truce came to an end Francis, fearing his imminent arrest, went ‘on the run’. From that time on, he led a life perpetually on the move, often moving on foot up to twenty miles during one night then sleeping during the day – either in fields and ditches or in safe houses; a soldierly sight in his black beret and combat uniform, and openly carrying his rifle, a handgun and several grenades as well as food rations.
The enemy reacted with up to fifty early morning raids on Francis’ home, and raids on the homes of those suspected of harbouring him. Often, houses would be staked out for days on end in the hope of capturing Francis. Often, it was only his sheer nerve and courage which saved him. One night, Francis was followed to a ‘safe house’ and looked out to see the Brits surrounding the place and closing in. Without hesitating, the uniformed Francis stepped outside the door, clutching his rifle, and in the darkness crept gradually through their lines, occasionally mumbling a few short words to British soldiers he passed, who, on seeing the shadowy uniformed figure, mistook him for one of themselves.
On numerous occasions, Francis and his comrades were stopped at checkpoints along the country roads while moving weapons from one locality to another but always calmly talked their way through. Once, a UDR soldier actually recognised Francis and his fellow Volunteers in a car but, fully aware that Francis would not be taken without a shoot-out, he waved their car on.
The years before Francis’ capture were extremely active ones in the South Derry and surrounding areas with the commercial centres of towns and villages like Bellaghy, Maghera, Toome, Magherafelt and Castledawson being blitzed by car bombs on several occasions, and numerous shooting attacks being carried out as well.
Among the Volunteers under his command Francis had a reputation of being a strict disciplinarian and perfectionist who could not tolerate people taking their republican duties less seriously, and selflessly, than was necessary. He also, however, inspired fellow Volunteers by his example and by always being in the thick of things, and he thrived on pressure.
During one night-time operation, a weapon was missing and Francis gave away his own weapon to another Volunteer, taking only a torch himself which he used to its maximum effect by shining it at an oncoming enemy vehicle, which had its headlights off, to enable the other Volunteers to direct their fire.
Francis’ good-humoured audacity also showed itself in his republican activity. At the height of his ‘notoriety’ he would set up road-blocks, hoping to lure the Brits into an ambush (which by hard experience they learned to avoid), or he would ring up the Brits and give them his whereabouts!
Such joking, however, did not extend only to the enemy. One day, lying out in the fields, he spied one of his uncles cycling down a country road. Taking careful aim with his rifle he shot away the bike’s rear wheel. His uncle ran alarmed, into a nearby house shouting that loyalists had just tried to assassinate him!
The determination of the British army and RUC to capture Francis Hughes came to a head in April 1977. In that month, on Good Friday, a car containing three IRA Volunteers was overtaken and flagged down on the Moneymore Road at Dunronan, in County Derry, by a carload of RUC men.
The Volunteers attempted to make a U-turn but their car got stuck in a ditch as the armed RUC men approached. Jumping from the car, the Volunteers opened fire, killing two RUC men and injuring another before driving off. A hundred yards further up the road a second gun battle ensued but the Volunteers escaped safely.
Subsequently, the RUC issued a ‘wanted’ poster of Francis Hughes and two fellow republicans, Dominic McGlinchey and Ian Milne, in which Francis was named as the ‘most wanted man’ in the North.
When his eventual capture came, it was just as he had always said it would be: “I’ll get a few of them before they get me.”
At 8.00 p.m. on March 16th, 1978, two SAS soldiers took up a stake-out position opposite a farm, on the south side of the Ronaghan road, about two miles west of Maghera, in the townland of Ballyknock.
At 9.15 p.m. they saw two men in military uniform and carrying rifles, walking in single file along the hedgeline of the field towards them. Using their ‘night sights’ in the darkness, the SAS men observed the military behaviour of the two on-comers and having challenged them, heard the men mumble a few words to each other in Irish accents and assumed that the pair were UDR soldiers.
One of the pair, in fact, was Francis Hughes, the other a fellow Volunteer, and with only a second’s hesitation both Volunteers cocked their rifles and opened fire. One SAS man fell fatally wounded but the other – though shot in the stomach – managed to fire a long burst from his sterling sub-machine gun at the retreating figures, and to make radio contact with his base.
Within three minutes, nearby Brit patrols were on the scene and the area was entirely sealed off. The following morning hundreds of Brits took part in a massive search operation.
Fifteen hours after the shooting, at around 12.15 p.m. the next day, they found Francis Hughes sitting in the middle of a gorse bush in a field three hundred yards away, bleeding profusely from a bullet wound which had shattered his left thigh. As he was taken away on a stretcher he yelled defiantly, through his considerable pain: “Up the Provies”.
His comrade, though also wounded, slightly, managed to evade the dragnet and to escape.
How he survived the night of the shooting, possibly the coldest night of that year, bears eloquent testimony to Francis’ grim determination to evade capture. After being shot, he dragged himself – unable to walk – across the Ronaghan road and across two fields without a sound, before burying himself in a thick clump of gorse bushes.
At one point, en-route, Francis fell down a sharp drop between fields, and his left leg – the muscle and bone completely disintegrated – came up over his shoulder; but Francis worked it carefully down before continuing to crawl on his way. In his hiding place, he lay through the night, motionless and soundless, till his capture.
When he was found, unable to move through the cold, pain and stiffness, Francis, knowing that both Brits and RUC were on instructions to shoot him on sight, gave his name as Eamonn Laverty and his address as Letterkenny, County Donegal.
Francis was taken to Magherafelt hospital and from there to Musgrave Park military hospital in Belfast, and it was only then that his true identity was revealed. He spent ten months in Musgrave Park where his leg was operated on, reducing his thigh bone by an inch-and-a-half and leaving him dependent on a crutch to walk.
On Wednesday, January 24th, 1979, Francis was taken from Musgrave Park hospital to Castlereagh interrogation centre where he spent six days before being charged on January 29th. For more than four days Francis refused food and drink, fearing that it might have been drugged to make him talk.
His behaviour in Castlereagh was typical of the fiercely determined and courageous republican Volunteer that he was. His frustrated interrogators later described him as “totally uncooperative”.
Nevertheless, at his trial in Belfast in February 1980, after a year on remand in Crumlin Road jail, Francis was found ‘guilty’ on all charges.
He received a life sentence for killing the SAS soldier, and fourteen years for attempting to kill the other SAS man. He also received fifty-five years on three other charges.
In the H-Blocks, Francis immediately went on the protest for political status and, despite the severe disability of his wounded leg, displayed the same courage and determination that had been his hallmark before his capture.
And, just as always wanting to be in the thick of things and wanting to shoulder responsibility for other political prisoners as he had earlier looked after the morale of fellow Volunteers, Francis was one of those to volunteer for the hunger strike which began on October 27th, 1980. He was not one of the first seven hunger strikers selected but was among the thirty men who joined the hunger strike in its closing stages as Sean McKenna’s condition became critical.
That utter selflessness and courage came to its tragic conclusion on Tuesday, May 12th, when Francis died at 5.43 p.m. after fifty-nine days on Hunger Strike.
With many thanks to: Sean Larkin – South Derry.
RUC/LOYALIST AND BRITISH PARAMILITARY COLLISION IN SOUTH DERRY IN THE OCCUPIED SIX COUNTIES OF THE NORTH OF IRELAND
PatroitDead SouthDerry NorthAntrim
RUC / LOYALISTS PARAMILITARY COLLUSION SOUTH DERRY NORTH ANTRIM
The accounts are remarkably similar. Intense crown force’s activity followed by total withdrawal. Hours of helicopters buzzing overhead, days of foot patrols and roadblocks, then silence. “Everyone knew someone was going to be killed, silence was almost always a prelude to terror,” said a relative of an East Derry collusion victim Tommy Donaghy.
Stretching from Derry City, along the North coast through County Derry to North Antrim is a single UDA brigade area. It includes Derry City, Coleraine and villages such as Castlerock and Rasharkin. It also borders County Donegal.
The territory is as wide and diverse – urban and rural, coastal and land bound. One unifying aspect is that local communities were all subject to the attentions of one organised unionist paramilitary group and state forces who colluded in its reign of terror.
Earlier this year one of the North’s most notorious sectarian mass murderers, Torrens Knight was exposed as an RUC Special Branch agent. In October 1993 Knight was one of a number of masked gunmen responsible for the Greysteel massacre.
Now families of other victims in the area believe members of the same gang were responsible for other murders. They believe collusion was organised and sanctioned by Special Branch and others. The UDR also played a key role, providing weapons and intelligence and willing recruits to the death squads. Many unionist paramilitaries were former or serving members of the UDR.
On Halloween night 1993 UDA killers walked into the Rising Sun Bar, a pub known to be frequented by Catholics and shouted “trick or treat” before spraying the lounge with bullets. Nineteen people were wounded and eight died from their injuries.
Knight later admitted standing ‘guard’ at the door of the pub armed with a sawn-off shotgun during the attack and driving the getaway car from the scene. He also admitted being part of a UDA gang that shot dead four Catholic workmen in Castlerock in March 1993.
Significantly, on the day of the Castlerock murders, two of three possible routes usually taken by the workmen travelling together in a van had been closed by the RUC. At Gortree Place gunmen emerged out of another van, killing one of the front passengers before spraying the rest of the vehicle with gunfire.
Four workmen were killed and a fifth seriously wounded. One of those killed, James Kelly,was later claimed as an IRA Volunteer. It is widely believed that the first gunman to open fire is a former member of the UDR.
Despite the fact that the gun attack took place within view of a RUC barracks, the killers appeared unconcerned about surveillance. After making an initial getaway, they returned to the scene, driving slowly past their victims before driving away again.
Knight, jailed for Greysteel and Castlerock, was released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in July 2000. Sentenced to life imprisonment for 12 UDA murders, he was subsequently paid £50,000 a year through a bogus Special Branch account.
The payments came to light after bank staff noticed the notorious loyalist withdrawing two large amounts and checked his account. A bank official, imagining that Knight must be accruing a fortune through illegal means, informed the PSNI. The PSNI confirmed the payments were legal before transferring the account.
Knight began his criminal career as a teenage petty thief who preyed upon family members including an elderly relative. It is unknown exactly when Special Branch identified him as a potential agent but his predilection for easy money and ruthless disregard for others made him an attractive proposition.
What we do know is that Knight was working for Special Branch at the time of the Castlerock and Greysteel massacres. Earlier this year it was revealed that Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan was investigating claims he was protected as a Special Branch agent at the time of Castlerock and Greysteel.
At the time Ronnie Flanagan was head of RUC Special Branch. He later became PSNI Chief Constable. There have been calls for Flanagan to go public on whether he knew Knight was a paid, protected agent.
According to Coleraine Sinn Féin Councillor Billy Leonard: “Not only was Torrens Knight protected and paid but many believe at least two other, more senior figures involved in the killings, were working for Special Branch. A number of key figures were former members of the UDR.” One was killed in 1994, the other remains at the heart of the local unionist paramilitary group. It is believed he carried out murders and took part in Greysteel and Castlerock. He is implicated in the murder of Donegal Councillor Eddie Fullerton.
Recently exposed secret British government files show that the British Cabinet was aware of large-scale collusion between the locally recruited British army regiment and loyalist death squads as early as 1973.
According to the documents in the early 1970’s up to 15% of the UDR were linked to paramilitary groups and the regiment provided “the single best source of weapons for Protestant extremist groups”.
By the 1980’s the Thatcher regime had developed established wide-scale informal collusion, through MI5 agents like Brian Nelson and Charles Simpson, into a murder machine more finely tuned to British counter insurgency strategy.
Victims of collusion in County Derry and the South East Antrim area include John Davey, Gerard Casey, Tommy Donaghy, Bernard O’Hagan, Danny Cassidy and Malachy Carey.
Davey, a Sinn Féin councillor, was murdered while returning home from Magherafelt Council in February 1989. He was shot several times at close range through the driver’s window of his car. The headlights were switched off and the handbrake was on, suggesting that he stopped at what he believed to be a crown forces roadblock. He had been repeatedly threatened prior to his murder.
IRA Volunteer Gerard Casey was shot dead in what later emerged as a classic collusion style killing. Two gunmen smashed their way into Casey’s Rasharkin home on April 4 1989. He was killed at close range as he lay in bed beside his wife and baby daughter.
Special Branch in Castlereagh Interrogation Centre had threatened Casey saying they would have him assassinated and the killing would be claimed by unionist paramilitaries. Just prior to the attack the RUC removed his legally held shotgun and drew a sketch map of the interior of his home.
Tommy Donaghy, a Sinn Féin worker and IRA volunteer was shot dead at close range as he arrived for work at Portna Eel Fishery near Kilrea on 16 August 1991. His family had been threatened by the RUC who told them Tommy would be dead before Christmas. Donaghy had been told by the RUC that his personal details had been passed into the hands of loyalists.
Bernard O’Hagan, a Sinn Féin Councillor was shot dead by a lone gunman as he arrived for work at Magherafelt College on 16 September 1991. O’Hagan was one of a number of Sinn Féin councillors attacked and killed during this period. Others include his Magherafelt colleague John Davey and Eddie Fullerton of Donegal. Fullerton was killed on 25 May 1991. One of the guns used in the murder was later used in the Castlerock massacre.
Danny Cassidy Sinn Fein worker IRA volunteer died on 2 April 1992 when his car was sprayed with bullets after he stopped to speak to a neighbour a few yards from his home in Kilrea. Forty eight hours earlier the RUC told Cassidy he would be killed.
A member of the RUC’s notorious DMSU had told Cassidy that there would be “a hole in his head big enough to put a fist into”. Another RUC officer pointed a rifle at the victim’s head. Cassidy’s photograph later surfaced on a crown forces montage in the hands of unionist paramilitaries.
Malachy Carey, a former Sinn Féin election candidate, was shot by a gunman as he walked along a street in Ballymoney on 13 December 1992. He died a short time later in hospital. Carey had been told by the RUC that his personal details were in the hands of unionist paramilitaries.
A number of families, including relatives of Gerard Casey, Tommy Donaghy and Danny Cassidy have cited further aspects of the killings that suggest their family members had been victims of collusion.
When relatives raised the issue of collusion during the inquest into the killing of Tommy Donaghy, the family was subjected to intimidation by the RUC. Later on the same day, an RUC Land Rover pulled up outside their home and an officer fired three shots in the air.
During the inquest into the killing of Danny Cassidy senior RUC officers admitted instructing junior colleagues to harass the victim prior to the killing. Following this revelation the inquest was adjourned and is still pending 14 years later, with no indication when it will be resumed.
The presence of an RUC officer, allegedlyoffduty, from Ballymoney in a vehicle just two cars behind the killers’ vehicle during the murder of Cassidy has also raised concerns about collusion.
On the day of Danny Cassidy’s murder, the actions of crown forces in the area led a local republican to alert the media, predicting that someone in the area was going to be killed. Later that day Danny Cassidy was shot dead.
The families have also cited suspicions regarding two guns found during this period in a lay-by outside Kilrea. Two people were reportedly arrested, the car was seen being taken away for forensic tests and yet no charges were ever made.
A loyalist who was later charged with possession of a gun used in the killing of Sinn Féin Councillor Bernard O’Hagan in 1991 was not charged with his murder. The loyalist was a relative of one of those convicted of the Greysteel massacre.
One of the guns used in the murder of Tommy Donaghy near Kilrea was described during his inquest as having “a particularly tragic history”. However the RUC refused to detail that history and the suspicion remains that it was the same weapon used in the murder of Gerard Casey.
It is believed that in 1993 Torrens Knight’s Special Branch handlers moved two high powered rifles from Agivey River at Hunter’s Mill, near Aghadowey after local anglers alerted the RUC of their discovery. The weapons were later used by Knight’s gang in the Greysteel massacre.
“There are many more questions to be asked, not only about Knight but also his accomplices and their Special Branch handlers,” said Billy Leonard. “There are other key figures that have roamed free while playing key roles in directing loyalist killers’ activities,” he said.
- THE GRIM REAPER – Greysteel psycho is freed from jail….again (seachranaidhe1.wordpress.com)
- Mortars found on border not the work of PIRA – Sinn Fein (newsletter.co.uk)
- IRA membership accused face trial (seachranaidhe1.wordpress.com)
- Sinn Féin says Seanad is an ‘affront to democracy’ (irishtimes.com)
- IRA Oglaigh Gervais McKerr, Eugene Toman and Sean Burns RIP (seachranaidhe1.wordpress.com)
- Sinn Féin to drop wealth tax from its budget submission (irishtimes.com)
- Prosecutions sought in wake of Kelly speech to Castlederg IRA commemoration rally (irishtimes.com)
05 November · 13:30 – 16:30
Duleek Independent Republicans will hold a protest in support of Maghaberry Pows outside the Westcourt Hotel, West Street, Drogheda on Saturday 5th November at 1.30pm. All are asked to attend. Banners and posters welcome.The protest is to coincide with a conference being held in the hotel which will be attended by the British Ambassador to Ireland.
The British Ambassador will attend a wreath laying ceremony earlier at the cenotaph on Mary Street at 11p.m. The UDR and RIR will be represented at the ceremony and expected to be represented afterwards at the conference in the Westcourt hotel