Maze governor's resignation sought after tunnel found

 

DEMANDS have been made for the immediate resignation of the governor of the Maze prison and for a full scale public inquiry to be held after the discovery of an escape tunnel at the Co Antrim jail.

Security sources in the North last night indicated that it was the IRA's intention to secure a "nonlethal spectacular" by way of a mass breakout from the prison at Easter or before the British general election, in which Sinn Fein is challenging the SDLP for the majority nationalist vote in Northern Ireland.

In the past year, since the IRA ceasefire broke down, several high profile IRA figures have been moved to the Maze and it was intended to return these figures to armed activities, security sources say.

These included IRA figures who had been transferred from prisons in England.

The major security lapse at the prison, which allowed the prisoners to burrow within 30 metres of the perimeter fence and conceal an estimated 13 tonnes of soil, will lead to a return to regular searching in the prison. Some of the tunnelled soil was discovered during a search yesterday.

A string of electric lights, strung through the tunnel, was traced back to one of the cells in the IRA occupied H Block 7.

Thorough searches of republican and loyalist wings ended almost two years ago after loyalists rioted when one of their wings was systematically searched for alcohol, drugs and mobile telephones.

According to prison sources, control of the paramilitary wings has been almost entirely ceded to the prisoners.

The breakout attempt was thwarted when a prison officer, on a random search last Sunday night, uncovered an elaborately constructed tunnel leading to the perimeter fence surrounding H Block 7.

H Block 7, which houses 95 republican inmates, was cleared yesterday and prisoners moved to other accommodation in the jail. All visits today to the Maze have been cancelled.

Neither the North's Security Minister, Sir John Wheeler, nor the chief executive of the Prison Service, Mr Alan Shannon, were yesterday available for comment.

The Northern Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, said the escape attempt was an "extremely serious matter which was fortunately foiled by the alertness of a patrol".

The Northern Ireland Office said a "full and thorough" investigation was already under way, but the DUP said this was inadequate. The party deputy leader, Mr Peter Robinson, demanded the resignation of the governor of the Maze.

The DUP leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, said security at the jail was at an all time low and that IRA commanders, not prison officers, were in control.

The DUP called for a security review at the North's other two prisons, Magilligan and Maghaberry.

The Prison Officers' Association demanded a full public inquiry into the attempted breakout. Its chairman, Mr Finlay Spratt, accused the NIO of attempting to "cover up" how the Maze was run. He said the prisoners had "free rein" and a special inquiry into the Maze regime should be conducted by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons.

The Ulster Unionist leader, Mr David Trimble, said a public inquiry was unnecessary and that the thwarted breakout was "not a resigning issue".

The UUP security spokesman, Mr Ken Maginnis, said he believed the IRA had been forced to attempt another escape because it needed to get the prisoners out to continue its violence.

The Alliance Party chairman, Mr Steve McBride, called for a public inquiry and said security at the jail should be high on the agenda of the next British government.

A Sinn Fein negotiator, Mr Gerry Kelly, said it was the duty of IRA inmates, who regarded themselves as prisoners of war, to attempt to escape. Mr Kelly said it would have been much better to have a strategy for releasing prisoners than to have prisoners trying to escape.

Ulster Democratic Party representatives met UDA prisoners in the H Blocks yesterday to discuss the situation. The party's prison spokesman, Mr John White, said the inmates had voiced concern that all prisoners would be collectively punished by the authorities.

"If the public knew what was going on, they would be astonished," Mr Spratt, of the Prison Officers Association, said. "Nothing is being done by the book."

The British government abandoned special category status, commonly known as political status, for prisoners in 1978, but unionists say it exists in all but name.

After the 1981 H Block hunger strike, prison conditions improved dramatically and there has been a further relaxation in the regime since the IRA ceasefire was announced in August 1994. There has been no noticeable toughening of security since its breakdown.

Mr Spratt said prisoners have far too much freedom. Former inmates have said a prisoner's morning starts with a head count and they fill the rest of the day whatever way they please until another head count at 8 p.m.

They have freedom to move about within their wing and they are not locked in their cells, even at night. There are 537 prisoners in the Maze, about 300 of whom are republican.

Both loyalist and republican paramilitaries exert a strong influence in the jail.