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Former IRA prisoner and Sinn Féin official Bobby Storey dies

Belfast republican, involved in Maze prison escape, was receiving treatment for an illness

A file photograph of Bobby Storey who died on Sunday. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire.

Belfast republican Bobby Storey, who was one of the leaders of the Maze prison escape of 1983 and later became Sinn Féin’s Northern chairman, has died.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald paid tribute to him as a “great republican” and said news of his death would be “received with great sadness by republicans throughout Ireland”.

The party’s Northern leader and Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, described Mr Storey was a “lifelong republican activist, former IRA prisoner and escapee and longstanding member of Sinn Féin who played a vital role in developing the peace and political process over the past two decades”.

He was, she said, a “committed, selfless comrade whose contribution to the struggle for national liberation earned him the full respect of his generation. He was an enduring tower of strength and will be deeply missed by us all.”

Mr Storey, who was in his mid-60s, had been receiving treatment for an illness and died in hospital on Sunday. From the New Lodge area of north Belfast, Mr Storey joined the Provisional IRA at the age of 16, and was interned the following year, serving two years in Long Kesh.

In 1979 he was arrested in London following an attempt using a helicopter to free the late IRA leader Brian Keenan from Brixton prison. He was acquitted but in 1981 he was sentenced to 18 years following a gun attack on two British soldiers.

Along with the Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly he was one of the leaders of the IRA breakout from the Maze in 1983, in which 38 prisoners escaped. He spent a total of 20 years in prison, serving long sentences and several periods on remand. He was finally released in 1998 and became involved in politics, becoming the chairman of Belfast Sinn Féin and then its Six County chairman.

UUP MP David Simpson used parliamentary privilege to name him as the IRA’s head of intelligence in 2005 and to link him to the £26 million Northern Bank robbery the previous year.

He was arrested and questioned in 2014 as part of the inquiry into the murder of Jean McConville, a widowed mother-of-10 and one of the “Disappeared” who was abducted by the IRA in Belfast in 1972.

The following year he was arrested in connection with the murder of Belfast republican Kieran McGuigan, but was later released unconditionally. His solicitor said he intended to sue for wrongful arrest.

Speaking after his release, Mr Storey said the IRA had metamorphosed from a caterpillar into a “butterfly” that had flown away.

“It’s gone, it’s disappeared,” he said.

Ms McDonald said Mr Storey was a “lifelong and very deeply committed Irish Republican” and a “champion of the peace process”.

“Bobby was extremely committed to the pursuit of a United Ireland with equality and social justice for all....His loss will be felt by all who had the privilege to call him their friend.”