I had written previously about David Fleming, who undertook several prolonged hunger strikes in 1944 and 1946, which had a severe impact on his health (and appear to have contributed to his early death in 1971). This month sees the 70th anniversary of his and Sean McCaughey’s parallel protests which ultimately ended in McCaugheys death and also shortened Flemings life. Against the odds (he was released from prison in 1946 on the assumption he was about to die), Fleming did survive until 1971, but what I had overlooked was one last tragic episode in 1947 that, in some ways marked the end of a chapter for the wartime era Belfast IRA.
And it was very much a sad one.
Fleming had written to the Minister of Home Affairs in the northern government, Edmund Warnock, from ‘G.P.O. Dublin’, on 18th September 1947, stating that he “…was returning to occupied Ireland on 20th on the 5 pm Dublin-Belfast plane… Enclosed is a medical certificate, just in case your puppet Government, plus your Empire, attempt to run up an alley-way. I am returning for one and definite purpose of continuing Ireland’s glorious struggle against foreign occupation in the only way I know to be effective – armed revolution. Yours is a puppet Government. Therefore I can only regard your cabinet and alleged police force as unexecuted criminals, and every further day you remain in society’s debt is a slur on my country’s honour. The only reason I inform you as to my intended movements is because I refuse to sneak from one city in my own country to another city also in my own country. Before God I am not a British subject. Rather than be considered as such, I prefer death any kind of death, even death from starvation. I shall return to occupied Ireland and I shall fight in occupied Ireland, and if it is necessary I shall die fighting and protesting against the foreign occupation of any portion of Ireland.“
He also addressed a second letter to ‘Your Britannic Majesty’ in which he said “One of your subjects, alleged subjects, is discontented and wishes to inform you that he intends to revolt. Let us examine the cause and facts… Yours truly was born in Ireland in 1920. Ireland, 1920! What masterpieces of sadism, brutality and barbarity leap before the eye of the informed. A nation – a very old nation – whose boundaries God in his wisdom had clearly set out in rocks and soil, was fighting for its freedom. A gallant handful was fighting a powerful, cunning and brutal foe – a foe that resorted to the barabrities of the Dark Ages. Cottages and factories were looted and razed to the ground; juries were shot or beaten; old men and young girls were beaten insensible. Live youths were tied to the rear of army trucks and towed at great speed along public highways to their deaths. Prisoners were brutally battered to death in cells with the butts of rifles, or starved to death on hunger-strike rather than accept the slavery of a foreign crown. Left with the option of war or slavery, I prefer war . . . British rule in Ireland may, owing to gerrymander, be ballot proof but it is definitely not bullet proof. The exploding land mine, the dead enemy, the Irish soldier patriot lying in his own warm blood-pool are to all necessities in Ireland’s road to nationhood. There is no other way. Before God. I am not a British subject, and I prefer death, any kind of death, even death from starvation, rather than suffer such a stigma. I shall, if your thugs lay hands on me again, hunger-strike my way to freedom, thereby obtaining your admission that I and all Irishmen are not British subjects, or I shall die of starvation in protest. Your father’s Government partitioned Ireland, your troops occupy it. Withdraw your troops, withdraw your insult to our national emblem (you have got it on your postage stamp), and Ireland is happy and free… I shall die with a gun in each hand, helping to establish a republic, de facto, or in a cell starved, attempting to wring recognition from the usurper.“
A further letter stated: “In case you have not already grasped, I, David Fleming, am returning to Northern Ireland – Ulster, by nickname-on Saturday, 20th September, 1947, on the 5 o’clock Dublin-Belfast plane.“
And Fleming did get on the plane and was seen handling rifle bullets during the flight by other passengers. He was arrested by the RUC when the plane landed, then searched and brought to Chichester Street RUC Barracks as he was still under an eight year exclusion order from the north. During the search he was found with some documents and three bullets in his pockets. He was held for the next few days in Chichester Street Barracks. On the Tuesday, after a conference with officials and the RUC, Warnock decided to hold him under the Special Powers Act and Fleming was brought to Crumlin Road.
As the northern government grappled with what to do with him, he immediately went on hunger and thirst strike. At the end of the week he was brought to court despite being already unsteady on his feet. After hearing his letters read to the court, which he described as an ‘unlawful assembly’ and refused to recognise, he was found to have a case to answer and brought forward for trial in October. His last comment to the court was “Fight fair. Do not use a tube. I refuse to be a tube-fed British subject. I shall resist to the limit of my endurance.”
By the end of September, when he had been on hunger and thirst strike for nine days, his brother Patrick was allowed to visit him and arrangements were made for a doctor to see him. By the 6th October he was 16 days on hunger and thirst strike and was removed to the hospital. While he was by now very weak, he must have taken some liquid as he would have been at a fatal stage of a thirst strike by 16 days.
When the case was about to go to trial he had been on hunger strike for a further 9 days. By now he had been assessed as to his state of mind. Even to a court of the northern government, the tragic legacy of Fleming’s prison experience clearly weighed too heavily on him and his brother, Paddy, a former IRA Chief of Staff, was allowed to collect David and return with him to a hospital in Dublin.