Some grinned, some hid their faces. And out of the Maze came the last 78...

Click to follow
The Independent Online

They came out of the prison turnstile to cheers and clapping. Some were defiant and grinning, exulting in their freedom and the attention it had brought. Others scurried away to waiting cars, trying to hide their faces, chaperoned by snarling minders. A small group of wounded victims stood a short distance away, in resigned little huddles.

They came out of the prison turnstile to cheers and clapping. Some were defiant and grinning, exulting in their freedom and the attention it had brought. Others scurried away to waiting cars, trying to hide their faces, chaperoned by snarling minders. A small group of wounded victims stood a short distance away, in resigned little huddles.

It took two hours and 54 minutes on a grey rainy day to empty the Maze of the 78 terrorists, ending the most controversial and emotive step in the Northern Ireland peace process. With yesterday's exodus, 428 paramilitaries have been freed early under the Good Friday agreement.

The releases had led to bitter denunciations from those who had suffered at the hands of the terrorists, and grim warnings of a renewal of violence from some unionist politicians. The news yesterday of the discovery of an arms cache in Croatia allegedly destined for dissident republicans added to the atmosphere of tension and foreboding.

For the paramilitaries benefiting from yesterday's releases the words much in vogue were "no triumphalism". They said repeatedly they understood "the hurt and distress" felt by those still suffering from their violence and they did not want to gloat.

But that did not stop the supporters of the various groups from starting to gather at the sprawling car park of the Maze from 8.30 in the morning. They would be seeing some of the most notorious gunmen and bombers spawned by The Troubles, folk heroes among their followers.

They included the IRA's Shankill bomber Sean Kelly, who killed nine at a fish bar; Torrens Knight, responsible for the murder of 11 Catholics in retaliation, including the massacre at Greysteel where he and a gang burst into a bar on Halloween, shouting "trick or treat" before opening fire.

There was James McArdle who ended the first IRA cease-fire with the bomb at Canary Wharf that killed two civilians.

The first in the car park were the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Freedom Fighters/Ulster Defence Association, fellow loyalists involved in a bloody internecine feud. They looked identical in baseball caps and shaven heads, tattoos and earrings. Younger ones had sunglasses and scarves to hide their faces from the cameras. But these were wannabee terrorists, the real ones were still inside.

William Smith of the Progressive Union Party, the political arm of the UVF, himself the first loyalist prisoner in the Maze, said: "We acknowledge the release of prisoners will not be welcomed by everyone and we understand and sympathise with that view. It is not our intention to glorify this occasion."

The eight UVF prisoners were whisked away as the group left the car park to the UFF. There was now an undercurrent of ugliness and aggression. The young men of the UFF marched to the front waving their blue flags saying "Simply the best" led by a middle-aged woman cheerleader.

Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, alleged leader of the UFF and the man called one of the most dangerous terrorists in the Province, bounced to the front, shaven head gleaming, muscles moving under his tight green T-shirt. To rapturous cheers, he shook hands with the first men to get out, among them Glen "Titch" Cunningham and Stephen Irwin, both involved in the Greysteel murders.

The largest group to be released were 46 from the IRA. Waiting were many friends and family, and Gerry Kelly, a Sinn Fein negotiator and a former Maze inmate. Danny Morrison, another prominent Sinn Fein member, was waiting for a cousin. "I have a bottle of champagne for him," he said. "We should not hide what has happened here. Margaret Thatcher built this monstrous prison to break republicanism. That has not happened, and people are walking out of here unbroken.

"They ought to turn this place into a monument, to all the lost lives not just of prisoners, but prison officers who had died as well."

Collette McCann had brought a card and a bunch of flowers for her cousin Noel McKay. Asked whether it was seemly to have such festivities she said angrily: "My brother Joe was murdered by British paratroopers. Hundreds of Catholics have been killed by security forces.

"We don't see any of these killers coming out today, because they never spent a day in jail. Why shouldn't I celebrate Noel's release?"

As the last of the cars bearing the prisoners and their supporters drove away the only people left in the empty car park were a group of victims. Jim Dixon, 82, who had to have 26 operations for his injuries at Enniskillen, stood in a puddle and shook his head.

"I wanted to talk to some of these people to let them know how we felt," he said. "But they did not want to listen. I'm afraid no one wants to listen to us now, they make us feel as if we are just an inconvenience."

Comments