Unionists condemn republican dinner dance to commemorate Maze breakout

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The Independent Online

Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland have condemned republican plans to hold a reunion party to commemorate the large-scale IRA breakout from the Maze prison 20 years ago.

A dinner dance is being held in a hotel in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, on Friday to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1983 incident, which is being billed as "one of the most spectacular escapes in penal history".

Speakers will include three senior IRA figures who took part in the escape, Brendan McFarlane, Bobby Storey and Gerry Kelly. Mr Kelly has since become a member of the Belfast Assembly and a prominent Sinn Fein negotiator.

A total of 38 prisoners escaped in what was described as the biggest escape in British penal history. Although half were recaptured within days the incident was an embarrassment to the authorities and a huge morale boost for the IRA. Sixteen were charged with murdering a prison officer who died after being stabbed with a chisel. They were acquitted, the judge saying he could not be satisfied that the heart attack was the result of being stabbed.

The Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson condemned the event, saying: "I think that this celebration is totally inappropriate when one considers that a prison officer lost his life and others were left wounded and deeply traumatised. To celebrate the Maze escape is glorifying in acts of terrorism and rubbing salt into the wounds of those who were victimised as a result."

The event illustrates republicans' continuing appetite for commemorating and marking events in the Troubles, even though the IRA has become less active. Last year about 2,500 people attended a dinner in Dublin commemorating republicans killed during the conflict, hearing speeches from the Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Families were given sculptures of bronzed Easter lilies.

While Unionist politicians have condemned such events, republicans have won praise in other quarters for a more conciliatory attitude towards commemorating other traditions.

There was criticism in Dublin yesterday of four Sinn Fein members of the Dail who were pictured inside an Irish prison with IRA inmates serving sentences for the killing of an Irish detective.