The great escape

On 25 September 1983, 38 IRA inmates in Belfast's Maze jail staged the biggest break-out in British penal history, killing a prison officer in the process. On Friday, many will celebrate at a controversial reunion dinner-dance. David McKittrick reports
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The Independent Online

Irish republicans love history so much, and love prison escapes so much, that it is hardly surprising that this weekend they will stage a dinner-dance to celebrate what they remember as the IRA's great escape. It is 20 years since 38 IRA inmates forced their way out of the Maze prison near Belfast, in what republicans recall as a glorious enterprise.

For the authorities, however, it is still recalled with a collective shudder as one of the most serious security breaches in UK prison history. Millions of pounds had been spent on turning the Maze into one of the world's most secure institutions.

Some people, especially Unionist representatives, take exception to the idea of glorifying an incident in which terrorism prevailed and a warder died. The positive aspect, however, is that even the IRA itself has come to view such events as the stuff of history rather than current affairs. It is being recalled as an incident of its time, of a phase that has now passed.

Gerry Kelly, who was then an IRA leader and who shot a warder in the head during the escape, is now a fully-fledged elected politician. He is this week visiting Britain on political business. No one doubts that he still has connections, but he and the other escape leaders, principally Bobby Storey and Brendan McFarlane, are now at the forefront of the peace process, fully signed up for politics.

Today the Maze lies silent and empty, and has done so since mainstream republican and loyalist prisoners were released under the Good Friday Agreement. That was another bitter pill for many to swallow, especially those who favoured locking up rebels and throwing away the key. But again there is a positive aspect to this, as very few of the hundreds set free have returned to active violence.

When the Maze prison was occupied, it was one of the epicentres of the Troubles. Taking the longer view, it was essential to the development of the present peace process, since it allowed republican inmates to mull over whether their "armed struggle" would ever drive out the British. Ultimately, in a jail described by one occupant as "the most reflective place on earth," a communal conclusion was reached that it would not, and that politics should be given a chance.

But before that happened, the Maze had the occasional capacity to destabilise Northern Ireland, as happened when 10 republicans starved themselves to death in the jail in 1981. Margaret Thatcher thought she had won that battle, even though it caused political convulsions and huge polarisation.

By then, republicans were under real pressure outside the prison, with the authorities persuading a stream of its members to act as "supergrasses" and testify against large numbers of IRA personnel.

One of the escape leaders said yesterday: "We had to do something. The republican movement was demoralised, looked like it was being beaten - we had to wipe the grin off Thatcher's face."

But the Maze itself went quiet, leading the authorities to believe that the prisoners had decided meekly to serve their time. They were pleased when hardened IRA types such as Storey and Kelly became orderlies, helping out with menial tasks such as sweeping the floors. But it was all a ruse. The IRA was sizing up the walls, the visiting arrangements, the warders, identifying the weak spots in the system and working out the chances of a mass break-out.

After months of planning the operation was launched in September 1983, with Gerry Kelly at its heart. The prisoners first took over one of the jail's H-blocks, producing six handguns that had been smuggled in. Kelly pointed a gun through the grille of the communications room and ordered an officer to unlock it. Other officers were overpowered, one knocked down by a blow to the head, another stabbed with a craft knife.

One officer tried to reach a baton, thinking that Kelly was distracted for a moment. The official report into the escape said: "Before he could do so Kelly fired two shots at him. He collapsed on the floor with a bullet through the head." In the event the officer he shot survived, his life probably saved by the fact that the guns were tiny "ladies' automatics", which had been easier to smuggle in. This was a problem for some IRA inmates, who thought the guns would be ineffective. Storey would later recall: "After the men got over their derision at the tiny pistols, they were taught to adopt a Starsky and Hutch pose, legs apart, gun held in both hands and pointed at the warder's face for maximum effect."

One of those who masterminded the escape was Larry Marley, himself killed by loyalists at his north Belfast home after his release. Once in control of the H-block, the prisoners seized a food van in which they succeeded in getting through two security gates. Storey recalled forcing the van driver to obey them. "This was the man who had to drive us out of the prison. He was our 39th man, a key figure in the operation. It was imperative that he believed we were desperate and would not hesitate to kill him. The first thing the poor man saw was about five guns pointed at his head."

Storey pointed to Kelly and said: "This man is doing 30 years and he will shoot you without hesitation if he has to. He has nothing to lose." The driver did as he was ordered, but close to the last gate the prisoners encountered up to 20 warders coming on duty. Fighting broke out and in the fracas, which was complicated by the fact that some of the prisoners wore warders' uniforms, many of the IRA men managed to get through the outer gates.

Gerry Kelly was a seasoned escaper. He first escaped from Crumlin Road jail in Belfast in the 1960s, taking refuge in the Irish Republic. There he was held in Mountjoy prison, but he escaped from there too, reputedly by hiding in a tree for several days. In 1974, while on hunger strike in Britain, he almost succeeded in breaking out of Wormwood Scrubs, but was spotted on top of the outer wall. In the Maze, he had made two previous unsuccessful attempts. He said later: "In a personal way, to be honest about it, I'd been trying to escape for some 15 years. I was beginning to think I was the worst escaper in the world and this was a great boost to me."

While the officer Kelly shot survived, another, James Ferris, was less fortunate, dying of a heart attack after being stabbed. Sixteen prisoners were charged with his murder but all were acquitted. After a state pathologist said the wound would not have killed a healthy man, the judge concluded that he could not be satisfied that the heart attack was the result of being stabbed.

Much of the escape went as planned but, according to an ex-IRA man, a five-minute miscalculation marred the final moments. Many of the escapers found no transport waiting for them and simply took to the fields. Half of those who took part were recaptured within days.

The inquiry into the break-out looked at some of the ways material could have been smuggled in. Apart from the obvious possibilities of visits, organisations were able to infiltrate or intimidate private firms and tamper with supplies for delivery to the prison. The inquiry also concluded that the possibility that a member of staff had carried the guns in could not be discounted.

Some of those who got out simply vanished, apparently taking no further part in republican activities. Some pitched back into the IRA campaign. One drowned a year later after a border gun-battle. Another, Seamus McElwaine, said to have been responsible for a dozen killings, was killed five years later by the SAS.

The escape was a major morale boost for the IRA and a huge embarrassment to prison authorities and the government. According to a senior IRA figure: "It just gave us that extra boost both at home and internationally. It helped to keep the war going." Some of those who escaped reached the United States, leading to a series of messy extradition cases from there and from the Irish Republic and continental European countries.

The 1983 escape was the biggest, but it was not the last. The most ambitious came in 1989 when the IRA planned to blow up a wall of Crumlin Road prison with a 1,000lb bomb carried in a mechanical digger. Cars had been left around the prison for escaping prisoners to collect. In the event, a tyre on the digger blew and the operation failed. In 1997 the Maze authorities were again embarrassed when a tunnel, complete with electric lighting, was discovered leading from one of the IRA wings towards a perimeter wall. But another IRA man did get out of the Maze, slipping out dressed as a woman after a Christmas party.

At Friday's hotel dinner-dance they will doubtless be telling war stories, but the violent deaths of some of those involved mean it will not all be celebration. The Maze warders suffered trauma, as did some of the prisoners and their families. A republican counselling body said recently: "We deal with ex-prisoners who mourn the loss of youth, with people unable to re-establish relationships with the families they once loved so much, and with those whose children have wandered into a world of crime, for which they feel responsible."

One of those who led the escape has now left the republican movement. He said yesterday: "I am now independent. I am a Christian, I just do my best to follow Jesus Christ and his ways. I believe that is the way to go." Some of the escape's principal organisers are still helping to run the IRA at high levels, and are thought to have been at the heart of the republican political spying operations that have come to light.

Even now, therefore, they continue to watch the authorities and to gather information. The authorities are not actually relaxed about this, but the difference is that no one really thinks they are planning to go back to war.

Gerry Kelly was later arrested in Holland, and went on to be a negotiator in the secret talks between republicans and the government that preceded the IRA's 1994 ceasefire. The man who shot the warder is today Sinn Fein's spokesman on policing.