Francis Hughes, one of the Provisional Irish Republican Army's most celebrated gunmen, today became the second convicted IRA terrorist in a week to die on a hunger strike in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison.
Hughes, 25, died early this evening 59 days after joining the hunger strike campaign by IRA convicts demanding that prison rules be relaxed to treat them as political rather than criminal prisoners. Hughes was serving a life sentence for the killing of a British soldier and a number of other attacks on security forces by an IRA unit he led in the hills of the Ulster countryside during the mid-1970s.
Like the death of fellow prisoner and IRA member Bobby Sands after a 66-day hunger strike early May 5, Hughes' death immediately touched off violent rioting in the Roman Catholic ghettos of Belfast and Londonderry. One civilian was reported killed and two soldiers were wounded as British Army and police vehicles were attached by snipers and bands of youths hurling stones, bricks and firebombs. Hijacked vehicles were set on fire, according to police.
In Dublin, capital of the Irish Republic, an angry crowd of about 2,000 people threw rocks and bottles at the British Embassy and the three-deep line of police officers guarding the building. Baton-wielding officers later charged to disperse the mob. No arrests were reported.
Again called out of their homes in Belfast by the banging of garbage can lids on the street, crowds of people, most of them women, said rosaries for Hughes, according to reports from Northern Ireland. As a voice broadcast over a makeshift loudspeaker system urged people to keep the security forces out of their neighborhoods, the barricade-building and stoning began. Police quickly sealed off affected areas and lined the fortified "peace line" along adjoining Protestant neighborhoods with large forces of police and British troops.
Since Sands' death, Irish nationalist militants have been trying to curtail this random street violence -- so far largely contained by authorities -- as a distraction from the hunger strike campaign and any paramilitary attacks the Provisional IRA may mount against government targets as part of its drive to chase British authorities from Northern Ireland and join the territory to the Irish Republic to the south.
Gerry Adams, a key figure in the Provisional Sinn Fein, the IRA political wing, said in a statement to a weekend meeting of hunger strike supporters in Belfast:
While everyone accepts that much more than passive protests are needed, they must remain an important and central function of this [campaign]. Sporadic, uncontrolled rioting on a small scale forms no part of this strategy and is counterproductive."
Adams has publicly said the Provisional IRA can still be expected to retaliate for deaths of its members on hunger strike. British authorities are particularly concerned about what it might do after Hughes' death. Although Sands was elected a member of the British Parliament during his hunger strike in a propagands coup by the IRA, Hughes was revered by the IRA as a guerrilla.
British oficials blame his small unit of terrorists, which hid in the hills of Northern Ireland, for the shooting and bombing deaths of at least eight members of the Ulster and British security forces during four years of forays before Hughes was captured.
Hughes grew up in a family of 10 children on a small farm near the town of Bellaghy in County Derry. He joined the Provisional IRA as a teenager. bHis elderly parents and brother Oliver, an Irish independence candidate in local elections later this month, have told reporters he was reacting against the harassment of Catholics by Protestants in the local security forces.
By age 22, Hughes was being hunted as one of the most wanted men in Northern Ireland when he and other gunmen ambushed a British Army patrol near the town of Maghera, only miles from Hughes' home. One soldier was killed, but another shot Hughes in the leg. Bleeding badly, he dragged himself into a ditch where he hid for 15 hours before being found by police dogs.
After recovering from his wound, Hughes refused to cooperate with police or the courts. He was convicted and sentenced to life plus 69 years in prison by a judge who called him "a dedicated and hardened terrorist."
The IRA is expected to give Hughes a paramilitary funeral similar to that given Sands, but in rural Bellaghy rather than crowded western Belfast, where Sands had lived and was buried in an IRA cemetery plot.
Three more Maze prisoners remain on hunger strike. Francis McCreesh, convicted of attempted murder, and Patrick O'Hara, convicted of possession of a hand grenade, both 24, have not eated for 52 days. Joe McDonnell, 30, arrested and convicted with Sands for gun posession after the IRA bombing of a Belfast factory and a gunbattle with police, replaced Sands on hunger strike Saturday.
Irish nationalist militants leading the hunger strike campaign have vowed that each prisoner who dies will be replaced by another on hunger strike until their demands are met. Despite continuing pressure from Catholic politicians in Ulster, the Republic of Ireland and the United States to offer some "flexibility," but not political prisoner status, the British government has so far remained adamant.
In Washington, the State Department expressed regret over Hughes' death in a statement almost identical to the one issued after Sands' death.