Republican prisoners see escape as their duty


IN THE words of Sinn Fein's Mr Gerry Kelly yesterday, it is the duty of republican prisoners to escape. Over the years there have been both many successful and many failed attempts in Northern jails to observe this duty.

Mr Kelly, now a Sinn Fein negotiator, was among prisoners involved in one of the most successful mass break outs from the Maze Prison in 1983. He was later caught in Amsterdam and extradited to the North and was returned to the Maze.

Since the Troubles began more than 100 men have broken out of jails in the North and some escapes have sensationally involved a huge group of prisoners.

The Maze prison, home to thousands of republican and loyalist prisoners over the years as well as those interned during the beginning of the Troubles, has the distinction of being one of the most secure prisons in Europe. However, there have been a large number of attempts by prisoners to abscond.

At the Maze, prisoners in HBlock 7 seem to have the reputation of being the greatest offenders and the most successful when it came to organising and accomplishing escapes.

The biggest break out from a Northern prison was in September 1983 when 38 republican prisoners escaped from H Block 7. Inmates produced guns and overpowered prison officers. A food lorry was hijacked. Inmates had put on prison officers uniforms and drove to the jail's main gate where the escape attempt was discovered. At this point a prison officer was stabbed to death. The bulk of the prisoners made off on foot and hijacked a number of vehicles.

Five prisoners were recaptured outside the jail within minutes. Four were caught as they tried to cross the river Lagan close to the prison. Another surrendered after being chased by a British soldier.

Many of those who escaped became embroiled in extradition proceedings in the Republic and in the US.

Until that escape the largest break out was of 33 republicans also from the Maze, then known as Long Kesh. They tunnelled out on November 6th, 1974. All but three were captured within a few hours and the last three were found that evening near Andersonstown, west Belfast.

In November 1971, nine members of the Provisional IRA escaped from Crumlin Road prison in Belfast, which has since closed. They fled during a football game in the prison exercise yard. The prisoners climbed rope ladders over the outside wall and escaped into waiting cars. Two were recaptured two days later disguised as priests driving towards the Border - two Cistercian monks were later charged with helping them escape.

In January 1972, seven republican internees jumped overboard from the Maidstone prison ship in Belfast harbour and swam ashore. They hijacked a bus in the harbour estate and drove it to the Markets area, still in their underwear covered in grease to protect them from the cold of Belfast slough. Most were eventually recaptured in the Republic.

The following month, Francie McGuigan (24) escaped from Long Kesh, the first internee to do so. He was described at the time as a leading Provisional IRA officer.

In May 1976, nine IRSP members tunnelled out of Long Kesh. They tunnelled through the night for a distance of 40 feet from under a hut almost to the prison fence, then using tools from the prison handcraft school cut through fencing and climbed the wall to freedom. One was recaptured shortly afterwards in a field eight miles from the prison before the alarm had been raised by police who saw him acting suspiciously.

A second man was caught attempting to hitch a lift from a police car on the M1 motorway near the jail.

In June 1981, eight republican remand prisoners fought their way out of Crumlin Road jail as they were being taken to court.

Several of the eight, known as the M60 gang, were put on trial accused of the murder of an RUC man and an SAS soldier and with possession of one of the M60 machine guns stolen from a Massachusetts armoury. They were later convicted in their absence.

One of the eight, Paul "Dinkus" Magee, appeared on the platform at the IRA ceremonies at Bodenstown 12 days after the escape.