Former Provisional IRA member questions whether armed campaign was worth it

Brendan Hughes says he is in favour of a truth forum to address legacy issues

A former senior Provisional IRA member has questioned whether the organisation’s armed campaign was worth it.

"I am not sure what we achieved. Was it worth one life never mind thousands of lives?," Brendan Hughes told the Irish News.

However he also defended his decision to join the IRA, saying “I can’t say I regret that I had an opportunity to defend my community and I would do it again.

A founding member of the PIRA in Co Tyrone, Mr Hughes went on to become a director of intelligence and masterminded the IRA breakout from Mountjoy Prison in Dublin in 1973.


He was sidelined in the mid-1970s after taking part in robberies for his own benefit, which he described as “one of the biggest regrets of my life, if not the biggest one”.

He spent a total of more than 22 years in prison on three separate occasions.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Irish News following the publication of his autobiography, Up Like a Bird – the Rise and Fall of an IRA commander, Mr Hughes, now 74, said he was now “unapologetically in favour of peace.

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

Folded flag

“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 asked.

He said he "can't support violence" and believes a united Ireland can be achieved through democratic means.

“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,” he said.

“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.

He said he was in favour of a truth forum to address legacy issues and would be willing to become involved.

“I would be the first in line. 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’.”

Mr Hughes said he felt “very strongly about truth and reconciliation because there will be no reconciliation until the truth is revealed.”

“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.”

Mr Hughes admitted he had “serious regrets” about his time in the IRA but told the newspaper it was “not the time to talk about it.

‘Life in the palm of your hand’

“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 said.

“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.

He warned young people thinking of joining a paramilitary organisation that they should think again.

“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.”

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.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times