Guns get into the Maze because it's an extraordinary kind of a jail

David McKittrick on King rat's killing
How, everyone asks, could it have happened: how on earth, in what is supposedly the UK's most secure penal institution, could one set of desperadoes smuggle in two guns and assassinate another inmate?

The answer is actually quite simple, for there are both precedents and explanations for what happened at the weekend. The key to the authorities' perpetual problems with the Maze lies in the fact that so many of its inmates think and act not just as individuals but as members of organised, resourceful and ruthless paramilitary groups.

Prisoners in England succeed in smuggling large amount of drugs into jails without any paramilitary organisation backing their efforts up. In Northern Ireland, where prisoners have a comprehensive support system, it is hardly surprising that they can smuggle in large amounts of money, material and other services.

In a contest between a system and an individual, the system will normally win. But in the Maze, groups such as the IRA and INLA maintain command structures which wield great influence, and which are closely linked to the organisations on the outside.

Thus the Maze works on a balance of power. The authorities run the jail, but there are limitations to what they can do, limitations whose boundaries have been drawn up in blood.

The central event in the jail's history was the hunger strike of 1981, when 10 republicans starved themselves to death rather than conform to prison rules which equated them with non-paramilitary prisoners. Those 10 deaths, and the many others which took place on the streets during that traumatic period, plunged Northern Ireland into perhaps the worst convulsions it has seen. The communities reached new depths of polarisation and division, creating appalling new depths of bitterness. The IRA and Sinn Fein were revitalised, laying the basis for a new cycle of violence. It was a terrible time.

The fact that 10 men went to their deaths made the point, in the starkest possible way, that imprisoned paramilitants have an extraordinarily strong sense of community. The 10 individuals gave their lives for what they saw as the collective good.

Since that awesome display of sacrifice and resistance, nobody has really believed that republican and loyalist prisoners are the same as non-terrorist inmates: they may be regarded as better, or as worse, but they cannot be viewed as indistinguishable. Furthermore, those in authority have since then acknowledged that the Maze can be no ordinary prison, and that the paramilitary groups will always exercise considerable power. The authorities have sought to minimise that power as much as possible, but they have never managed to eradicate it.

The prisoners and the paramilitary groups use various weapons against the system. Over the years almost 30 prison officers have been shot dead by the IRA on the outside. There are regular escape attempts, some of them on the most ambitious scale. In 1983, for example, IRA prisoners assembled an armoury of five guns, five hammers, 10 chisels and three screwdrivers. In the mass escape that followed, 35 IRA members got through the gates, though most were recaptured.

Such materials are just a part of the contraband which has turned up over the years: realistic facsimiles of rifles, together with mobile phones, video cameras and poteen stills have also turned up.

The inquiry into the 1983 break-out ranged over some of the ways that contraband could have been smuggled in. Apart from the obvious possibilities of visits, organisations have been 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.

Staff can be pressurised in a number of ways, including bribery and threats. A decade ago a senior officer, who on some nights was duty officer for the whole prison, with access to every key, was found to be the victim of an IRA "honey-trap". He had been lured into a relationship with a woman who was both an actress and an IRA intelligence officer. The plan was to free 25 or more IRA prisoners in an operation using arms and explosives smuggled in by prison officers, along with a helicopter. Such plans are only possible when a large organisation is involved.

The killing of Billy Wright came as something of a surprise in that the paramilitary organisations do not for the most part authorise attacks on each other's members in the jails. There have been exceptions, most notably when an IRA bomb killed two loyalist prisoners in Belfast's Crumlin Road jail in 1991, but usually groups direct their attentions to the authorities rather than to each other. Wright, in the words of one republican, "broke the barrier". By virtue of his penchant for self-publicity he achieved ogre status among republicans, while by making it clear that he wanted no part of any peace process he made himself an obvious target for attack. The INLA machine on the outside somehow supplied the guns and Wright was shot dead.

The familiar attempts will be made to tighten security, but within a year or two paramilitary power will reassert itself and the prison will again be run on an uneasy form of joint authority.

Viewed in this light, the Maze can be seen as a symbol of implacable paramilitarism. But there is something of a silver lining to its sorry history. The tabloids used to call it "the academy of terror". Behind its walls and barbed-wire fences, though, valuable changes of mind in the present peace process have taken place.

In the IRA H-blocks the idea of a peace process took root at an early stage as long-term prisoners contemplated both their own futures and the prospects for the republican movement in general. Most of those who have emerged from the Maze in the 1990s have lent support to the peace process, giving an influential form of endorsement to the IRA ceasefire.

Something similar was happening in the UVF and UDA H-blocks, where the first generation of imprisoned loyalists had time to ponder on whether a better alternative to violence was possible. The new fringe loyalist parties which emerged from this experience, arguing that dialogue was better than the gun, now play an important part in the talks.

Most of the republican and loyalist negotiators at the multi-party talks have spent time in the cells of the Maze. They, like everyone else, will be hoping that the killing of Wright, and the retaliation which followed, will not worsen their chances of arriving at an agreed political settlement.