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24 August 2006 Edition

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Interview: Ian Milne - freedom fighter, public representative

It's time to win

Once on the 'Three Most Wanted List' of the British Army and the RUC alongside close friend and fellow IRA Volunteer Francis Hughes, Ian Milne is now chairperson of Magherafelt District Council, one of an eight-strong team of Sinn Féin councillors on the County Derry local authority.

Here, talking to An Phoblacht's ELLA O'DWYER it is clear that he has lost none of the vigour and vitality that saw him through the fields of South Derry with Francis Hughes and the H-Blocks to continue the struggle on a new stage.

The former blanketman looks to new generations of republicans to do likewise.

From Bellaghy, South Derry, Ian Milne was born in 1954. He went to the same school as Thomas McElwee and Francis Hughes.

"We knew each other to say hello to though we didn't run around together."

It was republicanism that would later bring these men together and particularly Ian and Francis Hughes.

At 16, Milne joined na Fianna Éireann as a member of the 'Official' Republican Movement; a year later, he joined the re-organised Irish Republican Army.

What moved Milne was the institutionalised discrimination against the nationalist community and internment.

"My uncle, John Campbell, had been involved in the 1950s Border Campaign so republicanism was in the family."

In 1971, Milne was arrested.

"I did 18 months in Crumlin Road Jail for incendiaries that went off while I was travelling in a car. I got out in January 1973 and got reinvolved."

On the run for a while, he was rearrested a number of months after an incident on the border when he took a Garda car in a bid to escape arrest. The Gardaí evidently took serious offence to his taking away a Garda car without permission and, in June 1974, he was sentenced to five years' penal servitude.

Fortunately, Milne was part of the massive escape from Portlaoise Prison a couple of months later. It was after the escape that himself, Francis Hughes and other IRA Volunteers formed a new military unit. In the following years, they were very active in the Six Counties.

British Army and RUC posters announcing that Ian Milne, Francis Hughes and Dominic McGlinchey were the 'Three Most Wanted' were soon in circulation. In 1977, Ian was arrested in Lurgan and charged with killing a UDR soldier. He was sentenced to life in prison and on arrival in H4 in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh he joined the Blanket Protest.

"I was about 23 at the time. I was in a wing with Joe McDonnell for 18 months. I really admired the man. He had a wife and children and everything to live for."

Asked if he had put his own name forward for either of the hunger strikes, the answer was a clear 'no'.

"It takes a very special person to do that. Not anybody can do it. It's not only about conviction. It takes a certain strength to do something like that."

How did he cope with the fact that his comrades were dying around him?

"After the death of Bobby Sands the wings were subdued. We were devastated. But then we were even more set on continuing."

Ian went on to say that while the 10 men died for Ireland, they also died for their fellow prisoners.

"These men died for the other prisoners as well as for their country. You know how you'd sometimes hear a man say to a woman that he'd die for her? But very rarely does anything like that happen in reality." The Hunger Strike wasn't "a quick fix". There was the Blanket Protest and the No-Wash Protest before that.

"We were running out of ways to protest. We tried everything possible."

Margaret Thatcher's government was determined to re-categorise the political prisoners as criminals.

"The British were steadfast in opposing any compromise. But republican prisoners were not criminal. How could anyone involved in the conflict put a prison uniform on? There was just no other way at the time. I can't believe the brutality heaped on the prisoners. In many ways we became used to the prison regime."

He had made use of his time in jail, studying Irish and reading about places like Nicaragua, Vietnam and El Salvador.

In 1992, after serving 14 years on this particular stretch, Ian Milne was finally released.

Ian Milne recognises the legitimacy of armed struggle while also identifying the importance of knowing when to get involved in politics as a site of struggle "while holding onto our principles".

When he got out, he threw himself into the political struggle. He is now chairperson of Magherafelt District Council. He also manages the republican centre in Gulladuff.

Milne stresses the importance of harvesting the outcome of the armed struggle.

"We have to capitalise on the armed struggle and go on to finish the job. We need another generation to take up the challenge."

He sees no contradiction between his former involvement in revolutionary armed struggle and his current political work. For Ian, it is a natural progression.

Asked how he interacts with the DUP's Willie McCrea, Ian recalls a comment of Barry McElduff's at a recent event to commemorate Volunteer Thomas McElwee.

McElduff spoke of "the poetic justice" at work in the ironic turn of events where Councillor McCrea can now only address the council after seeking permission from Milne as Council Chair. This is all the more ironic, McElduff added, given the fact that Ian himself once featured on the RUC's 'most wanted' posters in the Six Counties.

The former blanket man enjoys his work as a councillor "very much."

Asked whether he had any regrets, he replies "absolutely none", going on to talk about the remarkable turn of events where a person like himself, whom the British had once tried to portray as a terrorist, is now amongst an eight-strong team of Sinn Féin councillors in Magherafelt, holding the town chair.

"We were never terrorists or criminals and the people's vote is an expression of that fact."

So what now?

"It's no longer enough to resist," says the man who stood alongside Francis Hughes. "It's time to win."

• Ian Milne pictured with Francis Hughes

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