IRA chiefs in Maze approved building escape tunnel ‘but wanted it to fail’

When prison staff found tunnel in 1997, republicans said it was occupational therapy

A watchtower and perimeter wall of the Maze Prison. Photograph: Paul McErlane/Bloomberg News

A watchtower and perimeter wall of the Maze Prison. Photograph: Paul McErlane/Bloomberg News

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A bizarre plan by the republican leadership in the Maze saw it approve an escape tunnel in 1997 that it wanted to fail.

When it was discovered by prison authorities, IRA commanders in the prison said they had allowed republican prisoners to become involved in planning and working on the tunnel but claimed it was a form of occupational therapy.

They said that had the tunnel been completed they would have taken steps to ensure that no prisoner escaped.

“The project would have had value as a form of occupational therapy to keep prisoners occupied and away from drugs,” recounted a member of the Northern Ireland Probation Board who spoke to republican inmates.

The IRA command structure in the prison was supportive of the peace process and did not want the tunnel to succeed amid fears it would allow “hard-line republican prisoners” who opposed the peace process to escape.

The account of the incident is included in secret State papers dating from 1991 to 1998 which are now being made public in Dublin.

In an internal memo, Seán Ó hUiginn, the head of the Anglo-Irish Secretariat in Belfast, described a conversation with Breidge Gadd of the Northern Ireland Probation Board in April 1997.

He wrote that Ms Gadd had criticised the “complacency of the British government’s reaction to the recent escape bid, arguing that this affair would have precipitated a major political furore and ministerial resignations in any other jurisdiction.

Not serious

At the same time, Ms Gadd believes, from recent contacts with inmates, that the work on this tunnel did not constitute a serious escape bid.

“Her understanding is that the work was approved by the Republican leadership in the Maze but that the latter, for various reasons, had no intention of allowing it to be completed.”

Another view of the Maze Prison. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Another view of the Maze Prison. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The communication points out that the republican leadership in the prison would have been well aware that escaping prisoners who were subsequently caught would be facing stiff additional tariffs at a time when their colleagues might be released under a new ceasefire.

“The Republican command, who support [Sinn Féin leader Gerry] Adams and the political wing of the movement, was worried about the involvement in the escape bid of a number of hard-line Republican prisoners who wish to see a full-scale return to IRA violence and who could have been expected to stir up trouble had they succeeded in escaping,” wrote Mr Ó hUiginn.

He added that Ms Gadd told him the republican leadership in the prison always intended to intervene “to halt the escape attempt shortly before the tunnel was finished”.

“They would also have been conscious, of course, of the propaganda value of even a failed escape bid.

“Whether they tipped off the prison authorities or merely allowed some detail to attract the latter’s attention is unimportant. One way or another, they were going to abort the operation.”