Ugly end to the jail that symbolised the Troubles

Maze releases: With the last inmates leaving Northern Ireland's most controversial prison, the door is finally being closed on a murderous era
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The Independent Online

The story of the Maze is the story of the Troubles. For 29 years, this bleak, grey prison on the outskirts of Belfast has symbolised the unforgiving violence and the bitterness of Ulster's civil war.

The story of the Maze is the story of the Troubles. For 29 years, this bleak, grey prison on the outskirts of Belfast has symbolised the unforgiving violence and the bitterness of Ulster's civil war.

The Maze held the most ruthless killers and bombers of this war and the release yesterday morning of one of the most notorious of the prisoners, multiple murderer Michael Stone, in effect signalled its closure.

Stone is the first of a batch of around 90 paramilitaries, loyalist and republican, who will be freed by the end of the week under the Good Friday Agreement, many after serving a fraction of their sentences. A handful of others will be left behind, but they, too, are expected to be released within months or moved to other jails.

With its notorious H-blocks, hunger strikes, murders among inmates and tales of beatings by officers, the Maze had become the most emotive and controversial prison in the United Kingdom.

With the peace agreement there was a feeling that it was too much of a reminder of the dark past. What will happen to the 130-acre site is uncertain. One plan is to turn it into a museum, another to have it dismantled brick by brick.

The end of the prison, still known by its former name of Long Kesh by nationalists and loyalists, came surrounded with the controversy with which it had begun life in 1971 as an internment camp set in an old RAF airfield.

Stone will be followed to freedom by fellow prisoners responsible for some of the most appalling atrocities of the strife. Among them will be Sean Kelly, sentenced to nine life terms for the IRA bombing of the Shankill Road, which killed nine Protestants seven years ago.

Also walking out will be Torrens Knight, guilty of 11 killings, including seven at the Rising Sun pub in Greysteel, Co Londonderry, in revenge for the Shankill bomb. Knight and his accomplices grinned and shouted "trick or treat" as they sprayed the bar with bullets on Hallowe'en. And James McArdle will have served just two years of a 25-year sentence for the bombing in Docklands, east London, in 1997 that killed two civilians and ended the first IRA cease-fire.

With McArdle will be three IRA snipers from South Armagh including Michael Caraher, reputedly one of the Provisional's most lethal marksman, who pulled the trigger when Lance-Bombardier Stephen Restorick was killed in 1997, the last British soldier to be murdered in Ulster. Among them, the three are believed to have been responsible for the killings of at least a dozen members of the security forces.

Also to be freed will be Norman Coopley, a member of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) involved in the sectarian torture and murder of a 16-year-old Catholic, James Morgan, whose body was found near Clough, Co Down, three years ago.

For many of the families bereaved by these terrorists, the mass release means justice had been taken from them. The IRA gunmen who killed Lance-Bombardier Restorick smiled in the dock as they were jailed last year. They already knew almost to the day when they would be free again.

John McPollin, whose 26-year-old brother Kevin was killed by Stone in 1985, said what has happened was "unthinkable... unbelievable", adding: "I don't like talking about that man, I don't like mentioning his name. Seeing his face on newspapers and television is just impossible."

Michelle Williamson, who lost her parents, George and Gillian, in the Shankill bomb said it was "sickening" that Kelly would be walking out. "This is the man who has killed your parents smiling through the gates of the Maze prison into the bosom of his family," she said.

But former inmates of the jail are now leading players in the politics of Northern Ireland. The alumni include Gerry Adams and his fellow Sinn Fein assemblyman Gerry Kelly. On the other side, David Irvine and Billy Hutchinson, of the Progressive Unionist Party, also sit in the Assembly and are seen as two of the most vocal and articulate advocates of the peace process on the Protestant side.

Indeed, former paramilitary inmates, loyalist and republican, say the Maze was a vital learning process for young prisoners. The time inside was spent by many on education, honing political ideas and discussing the future. Some who emerged helped to turn their fellow terrorists towards a road of dialogue and negotiations.

The Maze was also notorious for its confrontations. The inmates saw themselves as prisoners of war and demanded different rules and the right not to wear prison uniforms. This culminated in the IRA hunger strikes of the early Eighties. Bobby Sands and nine other republicans starved themselves to death and became martyrs among young nationalists.

There were repeated escape attempts. In 1974, 33 IRA inmates got out, but one was killed and the rest immediately captured. Nine years later, 38 IRA men escaped in the UK's biggest mass break. Among the first through the gate was Gerry Kelly, later to become a prominent Sinn Fein negotiator.

At the end, the prisoners more or less ran their own wings with officers having little control. This was vividly demonstrated by the murders inside. The most prominent victim was Billy "King Rat" Wright, leader of the LVF, shot dead by members of the Irish National Liberation Army while being taken for a visit. No one explained how the guns got in.

Then there was the brutal killing of another LVF member, David Oliver Keys, in March 1998. He was on remand, awaiting trial for the murder of two men, one Protestant, the other Catholic, in a pub at Co Down. Fellow loyalists suspected him of being an informer.

The prisoners on both sides also held classes on weaponry. Craftsmen made replica weapons for training and electricians taught others how to make the circuit boards for bombs.

One prominent republican former prisoner said: "The Maze became a rite of passage. It was our university. We learnt a lot there, but an awful lot of men also suffered and died.

"It is a grim and desolate part of our history."