Future MLA ‘shot prison officer’ during mass Maze escape, papers claim
Gerry Kelly also alleged to have threatened van driver at gunpoint during 1983 breakout
Gerry Kelly, who was 30 at the time of the escape, is now a Sinn Féin MLA for North Belfast
The mass escape of 38 IRA prisoners from the Maze Prison, near Belfast, on Sunday, September 25th, 1983, is detailed in files released by the Public Record Office in Belfast today.
A report written the following day for Northern secretary Jim Prior stated that Gerry Kelly, now a Sinn Féin MLA for North Belfast, played an armed role in the escape, threatening prison officers at gunpoint.
WJ Kerr, director of prison operations in Northern Ireland, described how prisoners in H-Block 7 suddenly overpowered staff at 2.45pm and took control of the block. Various weapons were used.
Among the prisoners in H7 were Gerry Kelly, then aged 30, and Brendan “Bik” McFarlane (31) who had been a spokesman for the hunger strikers during the 1981 hunger strike.
As officers were being overpowered and tied up throughout the H block, one officer saw “Prisoner 58 Kelly” [Gerry Kelly] pointing a pistol into the Control Room, according to the report. After setting out the sequence of events, Mr Kerr stated: ‘This would establish that Prisoner Kelly shot Officer Adams who was on duty in the Control.”
The report stated that Prisoner Kelly later told the driver of a prison meals delivery van to do as he was told or he would be “blown away”. The prisoners commandeered the van and forced the driver to drive it through internal gates to the main gate. The prisoners overpowered the staff at the gate and, although eventually the alarm was raised, they managed to get out of the prison. They then disappeared and fled in different directions.
Mr Kerr said the staff in Tally Lodge at the main gate “resisted strongly and in the ensuing affray one officer was stabbed and died shortly afterwards” while a number of other staff were injured.
In his conclusion, Mr Kerr highlighted a number of aspects of the escape that gave him cause for concern. In particular, the fact that the inmates had firearms suggested that they and their supporters outside were able to breach the security measures at the Maze.
The escape was the focus of a meeting between a DUP delegation, led by Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, and Mr Prior on September 26th, 1983. The DUP MPs claimed the escape could have been organised only with assistance from prison officers and expressed incomprehension that “the guards on the control towers had not fired on the escaping prisoners”.
Dr Paisley’s allegations prompted a memo to the secretary of state from NIO official, PWJ Buxton on September 28th dealing with the reaction of the soldiers who formed a prison guard force of 150 men at the prison. He reported that the sentry on duty in the watchtower on the main gate was the only member of the military guard immediately involved in the actual breakout at the gate; he had shot an escapee whom he had seen shoot a prison officer.
Mr Buxton was clear on the rules governing the response of the military guard to any escape attempt – unless the escapee was presenting a direct threat to life, or had just killed or injured someone and there was no other way of arresting him, the guard was not authorised to shoot. The army would not shoot escapees who were simply escaping. He noted that prison officers apprehended eight escapees at the scene, while 11 others were arrested in the following days.
Subsequently, there were allegations that prisoners were subjected to brutality at the hands of prison staff on the night of the escape. At least 11 prisoners made allegations to the prison medical officer that they were bitten by dogs.
K Hasson, a governor at the Maze, said he had spoken to several officers and they were adamant “that none of the dog handlers made any report to them regarding the dogs biting anyone”.
Dr Éamon Phoenix is a principal lecturer in history at Stranmillis University College, Queen’s University Belfast