A top IRA leader has said he used the QE2 to smuggle weapons into Britain from New York in the 1970s.

Brendan Hughes made the revelations in recorded interviews at Boston College. The former IRA commander gave the information on condition that it was only to be released after his death (Hughes died in 2008).

In the recordings, Hughes talks of how sympathizers who supported the republican cause would stash rifles and hand grenades on board the ship.

“I went to Southampton, put together a wee squad, all Belfast men,” he said. “They weren’t all members of the IRA but supporters. Belfast men practically controlled Southampton [docks] at the time.”

Hughes, a former Merchant Navy man who used his naval connections to work out the logistics of the smuggling missions, would then board the ship to remove the hidden arms when it arrived at the English port.

“I would drive into the docks, all prearranged through contacts, and actually get onto the boat to take the weapons off,” The Sunday Times quotes Hughes telling the researcher. “Normally the shipments would have been five, six, eight or 10 weapons at the most, maybe a couple of hand grenades.

“Seamen [would} go ashore in New York, carry the stuff on board, hide it in their lockers, or on the boat somewhere, and then have it ready for us [to conceal in] the panels of cars.”

Once the weapons and were brought ashore they were then transported to Northern Ireland, normally through the Scottish port of Stranraer.

British authorities became suspicious that the QE2 might be used to smuggle weapons when they discovered explosives in an apartment in Southampton in 1975.

Six Irish people, a crew member of the QE2 among them, were arrested when 874 sticks of gelignite were found in the apartment.

The QE2, which was the flagship of the Cunard Cruise Line for 35 years, made two transatlantic trips per month, but Cunard has always stated that it was not aware of any arms smuggling activity on the ship.

Hughes interviews are part of a book by journalist Ed Moloney called “Voices From The Grave,” due to be published this week.