Basel did not call on us to be resistance fighters. Nor did he call on us to be revolutionaries. Basel told us to be true, that is all. If you are true, you will be revolutionaries and resistance fighters. - Khaled Oudatallah’s eulogy for Basel al-Araj
Although he disagreed with the direction taken in recent years, he was held in high esteem by all who knew him. [...] He was my friend. Tá sé ar an slí an fhirinne anois. [Translation: He is on the path of truth now.] - Gerry Adams’ eulogy for Brendan Hughes

Part I: Two Short Biographies

These two eulogies, through the similarity of their phrasing, highlight a link between two revolutionaries who found themselves, at different historical moments, attempting to dissent and resist the aftermath of two of the most famous “peace processes'' in the past 30 years; the Good Friday Agreement and the Oslo Accords. These two examples of “peace” are often valorised in the liberal imagination as moments of compromise and reason, where warring tribes put aside their weapons for a common good. However, both these agreements were seen by its critics as being, in reality, attempts by colonial powers to defang and contain national liberation movements, forcing them to commit to cooperation on a political front, within all the limits this entailed. And in both circumstances, the colonial power gave up precisely none of its military superiority.

Often these agreements left much to be desired for the working class in their respective societies, and the former leaders of the liberation struggle were seen as collaborators by their former comrades. Now, these two situations are different in substantial ways, to be clear. The dispossession and genocide the Palestinian people are subjected to cannot be found in the occupied six counties. But similarities can nonetheless be found, as is noted in Deaglan O’Donghaile’s review of Edward Said’s book The End of the Peace Process, where he states, ‘One has only to replace "Palestine" with "Ireland", "Oslo" with "Good Friday", "Palestinian authority" with "Sinn Féin", or "Arafat" with "Adams" or "McGuinness" while reading this book to see how striking the analogy is.’ It was in the political situation after the peace processes had been completed that both Brendan ‘The Dark’ Hughes, and Basel al-Araj, were engaging in their respective praxis and knowledge creation. Though their lives followed different trajectories, both Hughes and al-Araj made the decision to dissent against the dominant colonial narratives in the North of Ireland and Palestine, advocating for political alternatives at a time when doing so led to censorship, isolation and even threats to their lives. Their efforts provide us with an example of maintaining a political consciousness when the status quo presents the image that we are beyond violence, beyond militancy, beyond struggle.

Brendan Hughes

Born in June 1948, Brendan Hughes was brought up in an Irish republican background, one which he summed up briefly in an interview as ‘my father had a history of Republicanism, my grandfather was in prison, my father was in prison, uh my mother had been arrested’. His father, Kevin, after a certain point became a widower, and struggled to bring up the 6 children in the family (though overall they managed to make do). But, as an obituary from Hughes’ former IRA comrade Anthony McIntyre makes clear, ‘[i]t was from his father that Brendan developed a class-based view of the world. This was reinforced by his own experience on the boats as a young seaman where he witnessed terrible poverty in the African port towns and cities his ship would pull into.’ The latter part of the quote refers to Hughes' time in the Merchant Navy from 1967, which meant he stayed out of Republican activism for two years until, in his own words, ‘1969 when the pogroms came about, when house were being burnt down, when the B-Specials were shooting up Divis street’.

From there he joined the Irish Republican Army (shortly before it split into the Official and the Provisional IRAs in 1970). Siding with the Provisionals (or ‘Provos’), Brendan became an important part of the PIRA’s guerrilla war against the British Army, leading his unit in a ferocious rate of five military operations a day. Joining through his cousin Charlie Hughes, who was later assassinated by the Official IRA (or ‘Stickies’ as they became known), Brendan rose to OC (officer commanding) for Provisional IRA D company in West Belfast, known otherwise as the Dogs, or Dirty Dozen[1]. For three years he was on the run, targeted by loyalist paramilitaries, the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary), the British Army and the Stickies, until he was arrested in 1973. The British Army had no idea of what he looked like for a long time,  as his father destroyed any image of him. What little they did know of, his dark complexion, led them to call him ‘the Dark’, which would remain his sobriquet for the rest of his life. It was during this time that he became close comrades and friends with Gerry Adams, an alleged fellow member of the IRA and future president of the republican political party Sinn Féin. It was together with Adams that Hughes was captured, tortured and interned at Long Kesh detention centre on 19th July 1973. It was this shared experience and other events, such as the time Adams personally brought a doctor to prevent Hughes' death from blood loss, that would forge a seemingly unbreakable bond.

Five months after being imprisoned, Hughes escaped Long Kesh by hiding in a mattress on a refuse truck. Once free he assumed the identity of a toy salesman with the name Arthur McAllister, and continued operations in Belfast, at one point managing to tap the telephone lines at the British army headquarters at Thiepval barracks in Lisburn. He was recaptured on 10th May 1974, and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison.  Three years later, he received a further  five years for assaulting a prison guard and was transferred to the H-Blocks where he lost special category status as a political prisoner for being convicted after 1st March 1976. He became OC of the IRA prisoners there and joined the blanket protest. He later escalated this to a dirty protest, and eventually led the first hunger strike by IRA prisoners in the Maze, which ended due to misleading offers from the British government. He was later released in 1986, where he helped with fundraising for the IRA in the USA. This was something that did not always prove easy, given that his revolutionary socialist politics clashed with the often reactionary and bloodthirsty attitudes of some Irish American supporters (including a notorious incident recounted in the recent book Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe, where a wealthy Irish American told Hughes that the IRA should escalate their campaign by shooting postmen for wearing the Crown on their uniform). Solidarity campaigns with freedom fighters from similar causes went much smoother, such as his attendance at a Batasuna press conference, supporting amnesty for ETA political prisoners.

Aside from this, Hughes returned to active duty in the IRA. But, as time went on, he privately expressed reservations with the strategy of the IRA and Sinn Féin, which was now led by Gerry Adams. After the Good Friday Agreement, he started to express these reservations as public criticisms of Sinn Féin. He felt that the leadership of the republican movement had abandoned their principles and any hope of a united Ireland for lucrative political careers, dubbing them the ‘Armani suit brigade.’ He felt that they had left behind the working class, and the ex-prisoners who had served lengthy services for the cause, who had come out with physical and mental scars, only to receive no support. He himself stated in an interview that:

'[...]when I got out of the prison in 1986 I found myself right in the same position again , I couldn't leave West Belfast I was too well known. I couldn't have worked outside West Belfast I had to stay here… but the only work I could get would be on a building site. and these people, they were Catholic, they called themselves nationalists, but they [were] doing the same [and] were paying people 15 to 16 pounds per day where the average would be 30 to 35 pounds per day, and that still persist today' [2].

Hughes would caustically refer to the GFA as ‘Got Fuck All’. Hughes was not the only critic of the peace process at the time, nor would he be the last. Dissident republicans would break away from Sinn Féin over the years following the Good Friday Agreement, forming various IRAs, all of which claimed to be the rightful successor to the Provisional organisation. The first two splits, which led to the formation of the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA, were in opposition to the Provisional IRAs political strategy and ceasefires, which had as a ‘key aim [...] to disrupt "normalisation" within Northern Ireland.’ Another break would happen when Sinn Féin voted to support the PSNI in 2007.

A consistent factor of some of these groups' opposition to the peace process, and one throughout Hughes’ writings, was the economic aspect. As the Guardian reported in 2004, the North of Ireland had benefited from the peace process in that ‘unemployment is at an all-time low; tourists are pouring in, and so is their cash; house prices have soared; and second homes have been springing up like daisies around popular coastal resorts’. But it also remarked that ‘scratch the glossy surface and it quickly loses some of its sheen’ as studies reported that it had found ‘32,000 children across Northern Ireland living in severe poverty - 8% of all youngsters’ and that ‘Forty per cent of these children live in households where the gas, electricity or telephone have been cut off. Half live with a lone parent, while 27% have parents with health problems or disabilities.’ Goretti Horgan, a campaigner from the Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network stated that, ‘It might look like everything is rosy, and it might be convenient for some in government to let this be the prevailing view, but the fact is that we have utterly unacceptable levels of child poverty.’ On the supposed economic renewal, she commented that:

'For a start, the whole concept of a 'renewed Northern Ireland' is based on a low-pay economy. People further up the social ladder have done well out of the peace - the gap between rich and poor is higher than in the rest of Britain, and is widening. The reality is that ordinary people are working for wages much lower than the rest of the UK. Invest Northern Ireland - the body that promotes investment here - even boasts on its website about wages being 25% less than the rest of Europe.'

It was these shifting goalposts that contributed to the paradox of poverty for many families and their children whilst unemployment remained low. The Good Friday Agreement and power sharing in Stormont might have ended the immediate violence, but in terms of actual governance the political process often resulted inconsiderable harm to these causes by the brinkmanship and grandstanding that power sharing often involved. Indeed, poverty campaigners complained in 2004 that an ‘ongoing political deadlock over weapons decommissioning [...] scuppered momentum on children's issues’.

Further away from the agreement, the Poverty and Social Exclusion research project observed that between 2012 and 2014 the North of Ireland still had ‘higher levels of multiple deprivation than the rest of the UK with over a third of the population living on or below the breadline’ in particular taking note of food poverty: ‘29% of households are ‘sometimes skimping’ or going without food so that others in their household will have enough to eat. 7% of households can’t afford regular fresh fruit and vegetables.’ And as recent as the start of the pandemic, the Joseph Rowntree foundation reported that ‘nearly one-in-five people in Northern Ireland lived in poverty, including over 100,000 children’. The North of Ireland, despite the opportunities provided by the GFA, still has some of the most deprived areas in the United Kingdom.

It was in 2001 that Hughes started writing for The Blanket, a publication both in print and online started by Anthony McIntyre. The journal was intended for a variety of opinions, often those of ‘disaffected republicans’ (though anyone could write in), whose voices were not often heard in the post-GFA period. Above all this publication valued free speech and the right of any individual or group to dissent against the hegemony of their day. Hughes would write for The Blanket throughout the 2000s, where, as McIntyre would observe, ‘[in] those issues where his writings appeared the hits counter went through the roof, such was the interest in what he had to say’. In his writings for The Blanket, Hughes was a consistent and principled critic of what he saw as a collaboration with British state power and institutions by getting into Stormont, articulating this position in an interview:

'The GFA has brought Sinn Fein into Stormont, still controlled by the British, with the RUC still armed and still on the streets. British troops are still on the streets of the north of Ireland, still on the roofs of the Divis Flats. Sinn Fein people have now become part of the occupation forces in the north of Ireland. '

This did not always prove popular. Hughes felt isolated and abandoned by his former comrades, and maintained some suspicion that the mainstream Republican movement was embarrassed of its ex-prisoners. He complained about the treatment of Kieran Nugent, the first blanket man, who died in 2000,saying ‘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?' [3] Hughes also complained of censorship. Recalling a time he went to An Phoblacht[4] to expose rogue builders underpaying their workers (very likely the same ones attempting to exploit him), he said ‘When they read the article at the An Phoblacht office, they refused to publish it. [...] The article was eventually published, very much watered down.’ Hughes saw the SF leadership as not only participating in the British state structure, but collaborating with the bourgeoisie in the Nationalist community.

It was this analysis which prompted to comment in an interview with the Sunday tribune, ‘My brother is taking me to Cuba. The revolution improved ordinary people's lives there. It was a waste of time here.’ But shortly after this visit to Cuba, where he had paid respects to his personal hero Che Guevara and met veterans of the revolution, Brendan grew ill, ‘struggling with a range of infirmities that dated back to his hunger strike twenty-five years earlier’. These problems, along with alcoholism that was used to self-medicate trauma from the Troubles, meant that Hughes did not work, and he spent much of his later years on disability benefits. Eventually he slipped into a coma, before dying on 16th February 2008 at the age of 59. It became apparent, after the release of the book Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland by Ed Moloney, that Brendan had also contributed to the Belfast Project, an oral history of paramilitaries both republican and loyalist which had been collected by Moloney, McIntyre, and Wilson McArthur over the 2000s. This project, which was sealed away in an archive at Boston College in the USA, caused controversy when part of Hughes’ testimony was subpoenaed, where his testimony led to the arrest of Gerry Adams for the murder and disappearance of Jean McConville. This turn of events led Keefe to wryly observe that Adams' statement on the death of his former comrade would ‘soon prove to be more apt than Adams could possibly imagine.’ Brendan Hughes commitment to truth telling outlasted even himself.

Basel al-Araj

Whilst Basel al-Araj’s period & experience of resistance was unfortunately much shorter than Hughes, he too felt compelled to turn to resistance to resolve the contradictions and problems facing his people. al-Araj was born ‘on January 27, 1984, in the village of al-Walaja, overlooking the Palestinian coast’. Al-Walaja was a village with a history emblematic of the Palestinian experience. Originally on ‘the hilltop to the west of the valley – the Valley of the Giants in the Old Testament – where the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway was built in the 1890s’ as Hazem Jamjoum writes, during the Nakba ‘Zionist forces expelled all of the village’s inhabitants, and took control of over 12,000 acres of the village’s land’ which forced them over ‘to the other side of the valley to the eastern hill of the village that came under Jordanian control after the 1949 armistice agreements – the valley itself becoming part of the armistice (or “Green”) line between the West Bank and the new Zionist state.’

Then, in 1967, ‘Israel occupied the new site of al-Walajah’ and set up new settler colonies there. In 1980 ‘the Israeli Knesset formally annexed Jerusalem, expanding its municipal borders to include parts of the new village but without extending Jerusalem residency rights to any of the inhabitants’. Jamjoun recalls that by the period after the Oslo Accords construction had begun on ‘the apartheid-annexation wall which now renders al-Walajah an enclave that is completely surrounded by settlements, walls and settler-only bypass roads, with effectively only one entrance in and out of the village.’ It was in this context that Basel lived, and he and other villagers would try to pave the road to Bethlehem, all the while under constant threat of attack from the Israeli settlers. All of this exemplified what Jamjoun calls the “ongoing Nakba'' that Palestinians face everyday.

It was during this last period during and after Oslo that al-Araj reached maturity. Oslo, like the Good Friday Agreement, exists mostly in Western, liberal imagination, with a recent adaptation of a West End play into a HBO movie speaking to this arrogant self-perception. But whereas the Good Friday Agreement had the significant point of ending a large amount of the sectarian violence and civilian death in its favour, Oslo was a farce. It was during this period that famous Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said articulated some of the critiques that resonated so strongly with Deaglan O’Donghaile. Said pointed out that there was a significant power imbalance between the two sides, and often the PLO leadership gave far more than it got in return. He noted that whilst the PLO recognised Israel as a legitimate Jewish state, Israel only ever recognised the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, with no recognition ever given to a Palestinian state. He also pointed out the reality that ‘[far] from ending, the Israeli occupation was simply repackaged, and what emerged in the West Bank was about seven discontinuous Palestinian islands amounting to 3 percent of the land surrounded and punctuated by Israeli-controlled territory.’Whatever Westerners believed, Said predicted that:

'[...] the settlements for the most part will stay, as will the bypass roads that now crisscross the territories; sovereignty, borders, overall security, water and air rights will be Israel’s; millions of refugees will have to look elsewhere for help and remain where they are' [5].

By accepting this, the recently formed Palestinian Authority had been given ‘the trappings and appurtenances of rule without the reality.’ The power Israel had, fortified by US backing, meant that there was little choice for the PA but to collaborate with the Israeli occupation. This meant that not only could Israel use military law in the West Bank with no repercussions, but it could also stunt Palestinian economic development. Said wrote that ‘economically the condition of most Palestinians (especially in Gaza) had deteriorated steadily since Oslo’ where ‘33 percent of the Palestinian poor were forced into poverty after the Oslo accord was finalized.’ In summary, Said wrote, ‘Each Gaza family now spends 58 percent of its income on food, and the overall Gaza economy loses $3 million a day because of Israeli strictures.’

The Palestinian Authority compounded this situation through ‘the sheer cost of Arafat’s rule through his police force, plus his seven, eight, or nine security apparatuses [...] and his over four thousand agents throughout the West Bank and Gaza, who spy on the population’. Alongside all of this, settler and state violence proceeded as usual, with ‘Sixty-two new Israeli military bases [...] to be established on the West Bank’ at the time of writing in 1995, and ‘curfews, house demolitions, imprisonments, killings, in Hebron’ as one example amongst many of Settler expansion and violence. This is not to say that the PA were oppressed or were forced into accepting this subjugation. Basel himself wrote that ‘It is no secret that there is a comprador class directly benefiting from the existence of the occupation, and the current situation gives great privileges to that small fraction of society.’

After 2008, Jamjoum writes that al-Araj ‘moved to the Shu’fat refugee camp in Jerusalem to take up his first real job as a pharmacist’, having studied for the field during the Second Intifada. During this period he became increasingly involved with the resistance movement, and began developing his praxis as an intellectual. He joined the Popular University to give lectures, and ‘organized famous field trips in occupied Palestine under the title “Tours in the History of the Resistance”, which accompanied the “History of Resistance in Palestine” course that he volunteered to present’. During this time Basel became a prominent critic of the Palestinian Authority, attending several protests against their collaboration with Israel, including one in 2012 where ‘he was taken to hospital after being beaten in the head by the PA’s security forces. Jaclynn Ashly reported it was then in 2016 that ‘Al-Araj, along with five others, was arrested by PA security forces at the end of March [...] and held for nearly six months on allegations of planning an attack on Israelis, Israeli media reported at the time.’ As Budour Youssef Hassan reported, this detainment had a targeted nature too, saying ‘The PA had persecuted Bassel for a number of years. Bassel took part in numerous protests against the PA’s cooperation with Israel.’ All the prisoners were tortured, with Basel in particular having to receive medical attention because of his treatment. Eventually, they started a hunger strike in protest at being detained without charge or trial. This hunger strike, along with the public outcry it prompted, led to their release. But, as Jamjoum notes, this was business as usual for the Palestinian Authority:

'It has become routine for the PA to do Israel’s dirty work of torturing Palestinians to attempt to extract information, then releasing them, handing over what they could discover to the Israelis, then facilitating re-arrest by the Israelis themselves. So it came as no surprise when Israeli soldiers began hunting down the six men after their release. All were hunted down in this way, but Basel evaded capture for six months.'

Basel had specifically avoided returning to his family home for this reason. However, on 5th March 2017 ‘a specialized tactical unit of Israel’s Border Police had attempted to raid the house in al-Bireh where Basel was hiding. After a two-hour gunfight, the unit fired two rockets into the apartment, killing Basel al-Araj.’ His funeral was widely attended, and his family openly blamed the Palestinian Authority for complicity in his death. Found in the house where he was staying was Basel’s will, amongst other possessions. It read:

'Greetings of Arabism, the homeland and liberation.

If you are reading this, then I have died, and my soul has ascended to its Creator. I pray to God that I meet Him with a sound heart, with total sincerity, without an iota of hypocrisy.

It is hard to write one’s own will. I have read for many years the wills of martyrs and have always been puzzled by them: quick, brief, short on eloquence and without satisfying our search for answers to our questions about martyrdom.

I am now on the path to my fate satisfied and convinced that I have found my answers.

How foolish I was. Is there anything more eloquent than the martyr’s act? I was supposed to write this months ago, but what kept me from doing so was your questions, you, the living. Why should I answer you, look for yourselves. As for us, the people of the graves, we are only looking for the mercy of God.'

This need to find answers, ones outside the old, established forms of praxis, was a consistent through line in both Brendan and Basel’s politics. These answers were multiplicitous, ranging from writing, communal knowledge creation, and armed struggle. Both revolutionaries responded to the conditions around them, created by the peace processes in their respective nations, and with them provided answers that are still relevant and useful to today. As well, these two revolutionaries worked outside existing factional and party structures, refusing to situate their politics around the seizure of state power. As an Electronic Intifada article makes clear, by drawing on Palestinian revolutionary history whilst refusing to make his practice a carbon copy of them, “Bassel acted as a kind of mirror to those legacies of resistance. He was an intellectual; he was criticizing everything and he was brave.” al-Araj stated himself in an article on the Palestinian authority ‘Joining a political party has become about reaping the benefits, not about offering sacrifices and struggle.’ The answers Basel spoke of lay outside the old forms of political organisation. But it was only by beginning to articulate the need for these answers that they could be found, by criticising this old form of politics, that they could be found.

The critical and revolutionary framework both Basel and Brendan worked towards brings to mind Karl Marx, who said in a letter ‘we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one.’ It was in the same letter he said this that Marx coined one of his most famous phrases: ‘it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.’ Whilst I’ve already stated both these revolutionaries did not fit neatly into Marxism, Marx remains relevant in helping us understand how to find these answers: by intervening, both critically and concretely, in a political present, by dissenting against political authorities. Exactly what form that took, will be covered in the next part.


[1] Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (London: William Collins, 2018)

[2] Quote is from transcript of a radio interview, so some slight edits have been made for the purposes of legibility. Edits are in brackets, and are all my own.

[3] It must be noted that Anthony McIntyre expressed reservations regarding this interpretation of events, feeling ‘that it was Kieran’s independence, so manifested in his ability to go it alone on as the first man on the blanket protest, which may have militated against him seeking help.’

[4] Sinn Féin’s official newspaper.

[5] Edward W. Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (2nd Edition), (London: Granta Books), pp.xxii-xxiii

Image by Keith Ruffles.

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