As an inquiry began into how two guns, ammunition, and what police called 'a device' were smuggled into the top security jail, Downing Street said that the shooting of a prison officer should not derail the peace process.
But Unionist politicians seized on the escape attempt as evidence that the IRA had not changed its spots. Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionist security spokesman, said that it broke the ceasefire and proved that the IRA was still an 'active, scheming and dangerous organisation'.
The breakout attempt happened just after 8pm on Friday. Six inmates - five IRA men and an armed robber - were out of their cells during a recreation break, watching television or talking to friends, when they rushed from the building.
They cut through a chainlink fence which sealed off their secure unit from the prison perimeter wall. The well- equipped escapers then crossed the yard to the wall before using ladders to climb it and knotted bedsheets to slide down the other side.
As the emergency alarm went off, prison guard John Kettleborough saw the hole in the fence and climbed through after the men. 'I saw two inmates on a makeshift ladder and another sitting on the wall. I shouted at them to get down and I ran towards them. I just got a glimpse of the one astride the wall raising his arm. There was no verbal from them. The next thing I heard was a bang. I went down.'
He was only slightly injured. Other unarmed prison officers tackled the terrorists as they came down the wall outside the prison.
The last man over the wall - Paul Patrick Magee, serving 30 years for the murder of a special constable - was caught as he came down and dog handlers cornered three others in a nearby nature park.
Dog handler Mark Maltby, 31, with his Alsatian Deano, heard at least two shots fired at him as he gave chase. 'With hindsight it could have been a foolish thing to do . . . but you don't want to let your colleagues down. The thing is you get to rely on your dog. You know your dog will do the job.'
Two of the men got away but were seen by a police helicopter two-and-a-half hours later hiding in a ditch half a mile from the prison.
Apart from Magee, the best known IRA prisoner among the escapees is Gilbert Thomas McNamee, who was sentenced in 1987 to 25 years for conspiracy to cause explosions. The physics graduate was linked to the 1982 Hyde Park blast which killed four bandsmen.
The non-IRA member of the group was Andrew Graham Russell, serving 10 years for various offences, including hijacking a helicopter which took part in a break-out at Gartree Prison, Leicestershire, in December 1987.
Labour yesterday demanded to know how weapons had got into Whitemoor jail, which holds some of the most dangerous terrorists, murderers and sex offenders in the country.
Prison Service sources said last night they were surprised that the inquiry had been given to Sir John Woodcock, a former Chief Inspector of Constabulary, rather than Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons. Judge Tumim wrote the report into the escape of IRA suspects Nessan Quinlivan and Pearse McAuley from Brixton prison in 1991, which severely embarrassed the Government.Reuse content