06 March 2006

British Government Must Never Be Allowed To Criminalise Republicans, Says Former Prisoner

32CSM Message Board

By Michael McMonagle
Friday 3rd March 2006

A FORMER blanketman has urged young republicans not to be involved in any activity that would allow the British government to criminalise republicans as they tried to do in the early 1980s.

Former prisoner Archie Fleming made the comment during a public meeting held in the Tower Hotel on Wednesday night to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the hunger strike.

At the event, which was attended by hundreds of local republicans, a film about life inside the HBlocks of Long Kesh was screened and afterwards, three former blanketmen answered questions form the audience about their own prison experiences.

The event, which was organised by the 1981 Committee, was aimed at young people and is the latest in series of commemoration events. The film, "H3," which was written by former hunger striker, Laurence McKeown, deals with the period immediately before the 1981 hunger strike, right up to the death of Bobby Sands.

Speaking after the film, during a frank and emotional question and answer session, Archie Fleming claimed that the British government were still trying to criminalise republicans and urged young people to resist their attempts. "The majority of young people who went into prison were young people. I had just turned 17 when I went into jail and many other people were the same age. I remember Thomas McElwee coming in and he was just an average young person. I also remember Kevin Lynch from Dungiven coming in and I thought he was your average big country man.

"The government tried to tell everyone we were criminals but in other circumstances we would never have been involved with the police or been in jail. We knew we were political prisoners. The young men in the H Blocks and in Crumlin Road were not going to let themselves be treated like criminals.

"Young people today can learn a lot from what happened then. The government is still trying to criminalise republicans and it is up to young people to resist that, just as the young people on the blanket and on hunger strike did. They can do that by not being involved in anything that allows the Brits to call them criminals. We want to get to a stage where are young people are just known as young republicans and not being labelled criminals. If I can offer any advice to young people it would be not to play into the hands of those who want to criminalise us," he said.

Mr. Fleming, who was in prison during the hunger strikes, said that the men who died during the protest were ordinary young men who responded to their circumstances with extraordinary courage. "The years spent on the blanket had hardened the prisoners. The men who volunteered for the hunger strike were ordinary prisoners. All of them had suffered. All were captured republicans who stepped up and showed leadership when it was required of them. We hold all of our fallen comrades in respect but the hunger strikes have a special place because they were already captured and had suffered and were young who stood up and showed exceptional characteristics of courage and determination," he said.

A spokesperson for the 1981 Committee said that they were "delighted" at the number of young people who attended the event. " We were especially pleased at the number of young people who came along and asked questions. We hope to see similar crowds at other commemoration events," the spokesperson said.

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