THE mass escape of 38 PIRA prisoners from the Maze Prison, near Belfast on September 25 1983 in which a prison warder was stabbed to death, is detailed in previously confidential files. Like many files in this year’s releases, that relating to the prison escape is partially closed to 2069.
The official report claims that Gerry Kelly (Old Baily bomber), one of the PIRA escapees and now a Shame Fein MLA, shot a prison guard in the head. Confidential reports prepared for the Secretary of State Jim Priors shed new light on the event and the role of a British military guard at the prison. In a report on the events of that dramatic Sunday, penned the following day, W J Kerr, director of prison operations in the North of Ireland, described how at 16.45 hours he was informed of ‘an incident at the Maze’. He immediately proceeded to the prison where he ‘was informed that H7 Block had been taken over by armed prisoners who had hijacked the kitchen lorry and had proceeded to the main gate.’ There follows a diary of the events on that Sunday. The day began normally with prisoners unlocked for breakfast and exercise. At 11.15 Fr Rooney, the Catholic chaplain, celebrated Mass in the H Block with 54 prisoners in attendence. Dinner was served at 12.15 hours after which all prisoners were returned to their cells. Suddenly at 14.45 hours prisoners in H Block 7 overpowered staff on duty and took control of the block. Various weapons were used including guns.
The prisoners commandeered the prison meals delivery van and 38 prisoners forced the prison officer driver to drive the van from the block through segment gates one and eight to the prison main gate. The escapees then overpowered the staff on duty at the gate and, although eventually the alam was raised, they managed to get out of the prison proper. The prisoners at this point disappeared and fled in different directions.’ Among the prisoners in H7 were Gerry Kelly, aged 30, (the present Shame Fein MLA for North Belfast) and Brendan ‘Bic’ McFarlane who had been a spokesman for the hunger strikers during the 1981 Hunger Strike. Kelly had been convicted at Winchester in 1973, along with Marian Price/Mc Glincy and Dolours Price (The Price Sisters) and Hugh Feeney, for setting off car bombs in London. In all he had made four previous escape attempts. McFarlane (then 31), described in the file as ‘a PIRA leader deeply involved in the organisation’ was sentenced to five life terms for the 1975 bombing of the Bayardo Bar on the Shankill Road in which five people died. The sequence of events at the prison began when prisoner Mead overpowered a senior officer while ‘Prisoner Storey entered the principal officer’s office carrying a gun and pointed it at the senior officer’s head.’ Storey then took charge, “forcing the officer to answer the telephone in a normal manner”. Meanwhile, other officers were being overpowered and tied up throughout the H Block. “Officer Leak was in the toilet when he heard two shots. He left [to see] Prisoner 58 [Gerry Kelly] pointing a pistol into the control room. “Kelly turned the gun on Leak and forced him into the officers’ tea room. Leak was tied up and hooded. Kerr added at this point: “This would establish that prisoner Kelly shot officer Adams who was on duty in the control. It is not clear if the control grille was locked before Mr Adams was shot.” As the IRA inmates gradually seized control of the wings they approached the inner gates where ‘Bic’ McFarlane told the prison guard that he had been “sent to clean the sentry box”. The officer was then overpowered by armed prisoners. Meanwhile, officer McLaughlin was on duty as kitchen van driver and at 15.25 hours had passed through the lock gates of H Block to deliver afternoon tea. “As officer McLaughlin started to unload the meal from the van, prisoner Storey put a gun to his head and forced him into the medical inspection room.
“Whilst there he was threatened by prisoner [Gerry] Kelly who told him to do as he was told or he would be ‘blown away’.” McLaughlin was then forced to drive the van from the block to the main gate through the inner gates. According to the report the van proceeded through the first gate unchallenged to a parking lot where most of the uniformed prisoners ddisembarked. At the main gates they seized the controls and got outside. However, Kerr stressed, the staff in the Tally Lodge “resisted strongly and in the ensuing affray one officer was stabbed and died shortly afterwards. “By this time the alarm had been raised and two officers sitting in their cars outside the gate drove into the area, blocking the exit.” In the resulting melee 10 escapees were captured including a man called Murray who was wounded by an army sentry in a watch-tower. At the time of the report on 26 September, 21 inmates remained “unlawfully at large”. In his conclusion, Kerr highlighted a number of aspects of the PIRA escape which gave him concern. In particular, the fact that the inmates were in possession of firearms suggested that they and their supporters outside were able to breach the security measures at the Maze. He was particularly alarmed at the ease with which prisoners were able to gain access to the secure entrance into the blocks and the main gates. He also questioned how the escaping prisoners were allowed to drive a hijacked vehicle through two inner gates without being challenged and why five officers in H Block 7 were permitted to be off their posts at the same time. Claims by the DUP leader, Ian Paisley that the military guard had failed to open fire prompted a memo to the secretary of state from an NIO official, P W J Buxton on September 28 1983 on the reaction of the soldiers who formed a 150-strong prison guard. He reported that in the watchtower on the main gate had shot an escaper whom he had just seen shot a prison officer. The position of a soldier shooting escapers was quite clear, Buxton noted; ‘the Yellow Card’ applied. Thus, unless the escaper is presenting a direct threat to life, or has just killed or injured someone and there was no other way of arresting, he is not authorised to shoot.
With many thanks to: Eamon Phoenix, The Irish News.