Maze prison gates slam shut for the last time

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The Maze prison shut its reinforced doors for the last time yesterday after nearly three decades as one of the most notorious symbols of the Troubles.

The Maze prison shut its reinforced doors for the last time yesterday after nearly three decades as one of the most notorious symbols of the Troubles.

But the H-blocks' closure coincided with a fresh attack on the Good Friday Agreement by Ulster Unionists who condemned the decision by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, to allow 21 terrorists on the run to return to the UK without prosecution.

The fugitives include Liam Averill, an IRA man from south Derry, who escaped from the Maze disguised as a woman, and Dermot Finucane, brother of the murdered Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane.

Finucane and Kevin Barry Artt, who is held in San Francisco, were among 38 IRA members who broke free from the Maze in September 1983.

William McCrea, the new Democratic Unionist MP for South Antrim, said: "I think it absolutely disgusting that the Secretary of State has said that terrorists, people who have committed some of the most heinous crimes in this society, will be given their freedom and not have to serve their full sentences.

"It is also disgusting given the announcement yesterday that Army and RUC bases are to be closed. I think it illustrates that this Government has closed its mind to the reality of what is happening and is prepared to sacrifice the people of Northern Ireland in its bid to appease IRA/Sinn Fein. [It is a] one-way drip-feed of concessions to republicans."

The closing of the Maze ends one painful chapter of Northern Ireland's turbulent history. The last three loyalist prisoners have now been transferred to Maghaberry prison. A republican from the block was taken to Magilligan jail in Londonderry. Stephen McClean and Noel McCready had been jailed for the murder of Philip Allen and Damien Trainor, in Poyntzpass, Armagh. Loyalist Volunteer Force inmate Alan Caufield and Lurgan republican Martin Cordon were also transferred.

The closure also ended the careers of 400 prison officers. Finlay Spratt, spokesman for the Prison Officers' Association, said: "It's an end of an era and I hope we never return to the same circumstances that we have had these last 30 years. I don't think a lot of people will be sad to see the closing of the Maze - it's been a blight on our life for many years."

The Maze opened in 1971, and was the scene of some of the most infamous incidents of the Troubles, including the 1981 hunger strike when 10 republicans died, the mass escape during 1983, and the gunning down by the Irish National Liberation Army, in December 1997, of prominent loyalist Billy Wright (whose killers were transferred from the INLA wing in the Maze to Magilligan jail last week).

In the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, 430 republican and loyalist prisoners have been freed under the early release scheme. There will be no amnesty for those suspects who escaped while waiting for terrorist trials.

* A 27-year-old woman was yesterday freed on drug smuggling charges after Kilmarnock sheriff court delivered a "not proven" verdict following her defence's insistence that her "crime" was committed to prevent a far worse offence. Ms Norwood, and her boyfriend, Richard McAulay, also 27, were caught with £30,000 of heroin as they boarded a Cairnryan to Larne ferry. Loyalist paramilitaries, who had burst into her mother's home where she was staying, had threatened to kill her unless she took the drugs through a Scottish port. After she was arrested, masked men had set alight her mother's car and her house.