Ghostly Maze shuts the doors on 30 years of troubled history

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The Independent Online

The grey stone buildings and rusting razor wire were bathed in warm sunshine yesterday. The only sound was the echo of a prison officer's boots as he walked along an empty corridor with empty cells on either side.

The grey stone buildings and rusting razor wire were bathed in warm sunshine yesterday. The only sound was the echo of a prison officer's boots as he walked along an empty corridor with empty cells on either side.

In its last days the Maze is a strange, ghostly place. The final batch of its terrorist inmates, about 80, will be walking out tomorrow, with a few remaining to be dispersed elsewhere soon afterwards. Then the iron gates of this prison on the outskirts of Belfast, the most notorious in the country, will close for the last time.

It began life as the cages of Long Kesh - huts where men were interned without trial, where conflict and violence were routine, and where less money was spent on prisoners per day than on guard dogs on the mainland.

As Northern Ireland's Troubles continued their bloody way, the permanent H-blocks were built and the name was changed to the Maze. But it remained a place of murders, riots, hunger strikes and mass escapes.

The Maze housed some of the Province's most ruthless gunmen and bombers, and H-block 5 held the most ruthless of the IRA's. Its alumni included Patrick Magee, who killed five and came so close to wiping out Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet with the bomb in Brighton; Sean Kelly, who killed nine with the Shankill Road bomb; Gilbert McNamee, whose conviction for the Hyde Park bomb was later overturned; and Paul Kavanagh and Thomas Quigley, two of the most prolific terrorists sent to England.

Yesterday the cells these men had occupied were empty. The bed-linen was neatly folded, towels and slopping out buckets put away in cupboards. The walls were freshly painted green and blue, and the smell of detergent hung heavy.

In communal areas, billiard tables were ready for a game and the gym equipment was oiled and in good condition. The blackboards had remnants of lessons in maths and accounting. The paramilitaries saw the Maze as their university, where time should be used to study everything from philosophy to bomb making.

These were the cells where "dirty protests" were made in the 1970s, where prisoners smashed up the furnitureand lay naked in their own excrement. For three decades there were riots, escape attempts and confrontation.

"Sometimes the noise would be so deafening you could not hear yourself speak. They would be banging on the doors," recalled a prison official who worked in the H-blocks for 15 years. "There was intimidation, you could find yourself suddenly surrounded by dozens of them. That was threatening, but I have not been assaulted once.It must be my charm."

Many of his colleagues were less fortunate. Even watchtower duty was not safe. The official said: "They would shout up asking for the time. When you leant out they would fire projectiles; it could be a billiard ball, it could be a petrol bomb."

Escape attempts stopped with the Good Friday Agreement and the promise of early release. The official had been present when one of the most audacious took place. "They dug a tunnel, and we only found out when we noticed that the ground had begun to look uneven," he said. "It was quite an impressive tunnel, they sawed off the legs of tables and used them to hold it up. You may well ask why no one noticed that a lot of tables had shrunk."

Three years ago, Liam Averill, a republican who had shot an off-duty member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, escaped dressed as a woman. He is still free. "The prisoners had been having a party and their families were allowed in," said the official. "It became impossible to carry out a proper search of the buses, the kids were running around making it impossible to carry out a head count. It was obviously a well prepared plot, he got away."

In an adjoining H-block, the loyalist paramilitary leader Billy "King Rat" Wright was killed by members of the Irish National Liberation Army as he waited in a bus to be taken to the visiting centre. The death led to a wave of sectarian killings.

"They climbed over the roof and then one of them got to the bus. He pointed the gun inside and told the prison officer on escort duty and another LVF prisoner to get out. Then Wright was shot," the official said. "How did they get the gun inside the prison? That we never found out. But the Maze is a place where anything was possible, anything."

What will happen to the 130-acre site is now a matter of debate. Some people, including prison officers and former inmates, would like it razed.

But others want it to be kept open as a museum. In terms of infamous places of detention, the Maze is up there with Alcatraz and Robben Island, both of which have become popular tourist attractions.

There is no doubting the enduring fascination of the Maze. Indeed, a dozen film and television companies from three continents have already expressed interest in filming there once it shuts.