Over the Hills and Far Away

When I went to prison I started to see life. When you are part of life you don't see it. You have to go to the other side - to death, to prison, to exile. - Egyptian writer Nawal el Saadawi

The Blanket
Anthony McIntyre • 25 September 2003

The 25th of September is an important date in the republican calendar. Twenty years ago today the IRA in the H-Blocks achieved the impossible and executed the most daring and audacious escape in what sections of the media were wont to term 'British penal history.' The action was easier to liken to the aplomb, zest and panache characteristic of operations mounted by the Tupamaros of Uruguay than to the 'rope over the wall' escapades that Europeans have been famed for. And although there have been some great European escapers, such as the French gangster Mesrine whose life and times were captured in a biography by Carey Schofield, no matter what status their exploits have attained in the annals of escapology none have managed to acquit themselves with as much sophistication as Bobby Storey, Bik McFarlane and their entourage did two decades ago. At 7:06pm this evening I travelled by the now defunct jail after having spent the day in the company of a former prisoner who was, like myself, on the wrong side of its walls and in the wrong block when the escape took place. Thrown together by our confinement, its very antithesis, freedom, had not yet managed to dissolve the bonds of friendship forged in the concrete corridors of one her majesty's darker corners.

Tonight the grassy area external to the jail seemed calm, undisturbed by the rustling of ghosts from twenty years past. Then the terrain must have been awash with armed and uniformed state goondas mounting roadblocks and scrutinising the faces of drivers and passengers alike, vainly attempting to ensure that the numbers at HMP Maze were 'all present and correct sir', just as they had been at breakfast time. In republican areas the graffiti wits took to the walls with typical bite: 'H-Block 7 - open all day Sunday' was how one wall read. Elsewhere the British radio satirical, Weekending, the following Friday night, mercilessly mocked the prison governor, advising him to leave the key where the prisoners
could find it before he locked up and went home - it would save a lot of bother, fighting and hijacking of the prison food lorry. During the blanket protest the lorry was called the 'happy wagon', always greeted by the cheers from the 'NCPs' - non conforming
prisoners - when it trundled into the yard with its promise to break the monotony of the day. Now it was leaving with the happiest contents ever to occupy its interior. One prison officer, Jimmy Ferris, died during the escape. Few remembered him until the 'ourselves alone live here' unionists seized on his death and made a barricade out of his memory merely to engage in a spot of shroud waving and draw attention from the Letterkenny party to the
poopers. It failed - Jeffrey Donaldson is hardly the type that draws much attention within any party - even his own.

In the immediate wake of the escape the prison staff did what they do best. Chris Ryder in his book, Inside The Maze, described it as `one of the most shameful episodes of Northern Ireland prison history.' Guards brutally set about those prisoners who did not flee
H7. Many were beaten and some fell victims to the canine appetite of Alsatian dogs. Those escapees who were immediately recaptured were ferociously beaten. And not one screw ever faced court proceedings as a result.

In H1, while there was a lock up we avoided the worst of it. One screw punched an isolated Liam Ferguson, who retaliated with a well-directed fist of his own. The screws at the top of the wing moved to gang up on Liam but were persuaded otherwise by an enraged Martin Meehan violently rattling the canteen grills and warning them of the consequences if they attacked 'Fergy'. They knew they would not have us locked up forever and wisely desisted. Fergy laughed his way to the boards where three days was unlikely to break him. Meanwhile, 19 of his comrades were over the hills and far away.

Those who failed to make it outside the security cordon returned to face years of being transferred from block to block once every few weeks in an administration bid to disrupt escape plans. But all
prison management achieved was to add cohesion to IRA command and control structures within the jail. Republican prisoner practices and procedures were integrated and compared all the easier to other
blocks due to administration assisted continuous feedback. Accordingly, adjustments could then be made. Our daily existence became more structured and routinised. Life in one block became much the same as life in any other. If we did not always know what to expect we knew how to respond. Resistance culture in the prison became more standardised. Yet everywhere there existed the subcurrent, where dope was smoked and booze was brewed - transgressions in the view of both official and unofficial jail management. On occasion it is hard to take some Sinn Fein spokespersons serious when they appear Armani attired and po-faced in public to tell us of something 'crucial and unprecedented.' Our memories of them recall them sitting stoned in a cell with a joint hanging from their lips - and dressed just like the rest of us.

In those days it was our duty to escape and return to the struggle. New middle leadership was required which would add real impetus to attempts to take the war to a higher plane. Flying columns could establish liberated areas. We would control the ground and deny the British access to the skies. Some of those who escaped later died fighting. Three lost their lives in battle against the British SAS. Escape was an imperative - if we didn't up the ante the British
would be free to secure their objective - an internal solution taking the institutional form of power sharing and cross border bodies - and our struggle would be defeated. Ultimately, in spite of the success and ingenuity of the escapers, nothing came out of the
jail that could stave off that outcome. Instead, twenty years on, many are happy to wave the wooden spoon. And there are, unfortunately, more than a few human Alsatians ready to eat alive
anyone suggesting an escape from Stormont.

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