Colin Duffy on Friday after he was charged with the murder of two soldiers

Veteran republican Laurence O'Neill looked around the packed community centre in Lurgan's Kilwilkie estate where 250 people had gathered at short notice to support Colin Duffy. "Does this constitute a small minority or a micro-group?" he asked to a ripple of laughter.

The crowd's rage at the authorities' treatment of Duffy showed the support militant republicanism retains in some working-class nationalist areas. Hours later, Duffy was charged with murdering two British soldiers at Massereene. Graffiti in Kilwilkie demands his release. Other street slogans support dissident paramilitaries.

Duffy's wife, Martine, and his young children, sat at the front of the hall, nervous and concerned. The panel of speakers and the audience – many former Provisional stalwarts – reflected the slow but steady drift there's been from that movement.

As much anger was directed at Sinn Féin as at the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and British government. Duffy was being held in "inhuman conditions" about to be "framed".

Inhumane conditions

"Collie Duffy is being kept in a concrete bunker without fresh air or daylight. If I kept my dog in those conditions, the animal welfare people would have me in court," Laurence O'Neill claimed. A founder Provisional IRA member and ex-prisoner, O'Neill is also a former Sinn Féin fund-raiser.

"Sinn Féin failed to negotiate a satisfactory settlement for republican Ireland. They think they've sidelined and intimidated all the foot-soldiers. They have not," he declared.

On the platform was Tony Catney from West Belfast, a former Sinn Féin ard comhairle member, senior electoral strategist, and long-serving IRA prisoner.

He had run Sinn Féin's Brussel's office and the POW department before resigning. "Lots of people in this room could be in the same situation as Collie. All he is 'guilty' of is standing up for his community and declaring himself an Irish republican," Catney said.

He claimed the continuing emergency legislation showed Northern Ireland wasn't normal. It had the longest period of detention for suspects of any western state, including the US.

"The conditions in which Colin Duffy is being held are disgraceful

Solicitor Padraigin Drinan said: "The conditions in which Colin Duffy is being held are disgraceful. He's in a small cell in solitary confinement with no fresh air or natural daylight. It's sensory deprivation to disorientate him." One woman said: "Hugh Orde claims the cells in Antrim holding centre are fit for purpose. Let him spend a few nights in them!"

A Derry man said: "The republican people hold Provisional Sinn Féin responsible. When they come round at election time, chase them from your door. We picketed the offices of John Hume and Gerry Fitt in the '70s. Let's do the same to Sinn Féin."

Voting the wrongs ones in

A woman said: "We campaigned for one person, one vote. Then, we voted the wrong ones in." Somebody suggested picketing Stormont. Such was the fury from the floor that Tony Catney intervened to say Sinn Féin was only one of several parties open to criticism. "But they're the f***ing worst!" somebody shouted.

Duffy's brother Paul said Colin was an innocent man who had experienced constant police harassment and was being framed for something he didn't do. Duffy, who had gone on hunger-strike, had already lost over a stone in weight and concerns were expressed about his health. He looked emaciated when he appeared in court last Friday.

Ex-Sinn Féin Assembly member and human rights spokesman Pat McNamee said: "For 40 years, even at the height of the conflict, the police weren't allowed to detain people for more than seven days. I experienced that period myself. Now, they try to hold people 28 days. How can they sell this six-county state as a normal democracy? How can Colin Duffy, demonised in the media, have a fair trial?"

There were complaints that lawyers generally, human rights organisations, and the clergy remained silent about ongoing human rights abuses directed against 'dissidents'.

Mike Ritchie of the Committee on the Administration of Justice said 28-day detention was "wrong" and there were "some very troubling elements" to recent arrests. However, "improvements" had been made including video and audio recording of police interviews and suspects securing access to solicitors during all interviews.

Former Sinn Féin activist and Garvaghy Road Residents' Coalition leader Breandan MacCionnaith said:

"British policing in Ireland cannot be reformed." Forty years after civil rights marchers demanded an end to the Special Powers Act, even more repressive legislation existed, he said:

"Those (Sinn Féin) who said they'd put manners on the PSNI must admit they've failed."