CNN Specials - Northern Ireland

**Here is an older article about the Maze. If you click on the link above, you will also find other articles of interest.

Doors closing for last time at 'unique' prison

The Maze: Steeped in symbolism
(CNN) -- Only the annual standoff at Drumcree holds as much symbolism of the years of political and paramilitary conflict in Northern Ireland as that evoked by the Maze Prison.

For three decades this imposing collection of buildings near Lisburn, County Antrim -- 10 miles west of Belfast -- held some of the paramilitaries' most hardened killers and bombers.

The Maze is to be closed later this year after the mass release of most of its remaining paramilitary prisoners on July 28 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

The effects of many of the events that occurred inside the prison reverberated far beyond the walls of its notorious H-blocks: the so-called dirty protest; hunger strikes; three mass breakouts; murder and riots (in 1973, the prison was set on fire and troops called in to restore order).

In 1998, Sir David Ramsbotham, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, summed up the institution as "unique within the prison system in the United Kingdom, and probably the world, in that it holds the bulk of the paramilitary prisoners from all factions who have been convicted, or are awaiting trial, for crimes committed in the course of a campaign of violence against the State."

He added: "In the eyes of those prisoners, they remain part of the campaign, and their imprisonment has been the catalyst for a variety of incidents over the years."

Internment camp
Originally an RAF airfield, the Maze (known locally as Long Kesh), was opened in 1971 as an internment camp. Five members of the current Northern Ireland Assembly are former inmates, including Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, who was interned in the early 1970s, and David Ervine, spokesman of the Progressive Unionist Party, who served a five-year jail sentence after being stopped by security forces in a car that contained a bomb. He was released in 1980.

Dubbed by inmates as the "university of terror," one former republican prisoner recalled: "We went in bad terrorists and came out good terrorists. We learned how to strip and handle weapons, how to make booby-trap bombs, how to stand up to interrogation and, basically, how to be a professional terrorist."

While it once housed 1,700 prisoners, the Maze faces closure following the controversial early-release programme negotiated as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

All inmates who were told by the Sentences Review Commission that they qualified for early release and who served two years or more of their sentence were freed, whatever their crime and with many only having served a fraction of their jail term.

Among almost 430 prisoners released under the scheme, 143 were serving life sentences. One of those was loyalist killer Michael Stone, who murdered six Catholics, three of them during his infamous lone gun and grenade attack on an IRA funeral at Belfast's Milltown Cemetery in 1988.

Controversial releases
Also released was IRA bomber Sean Kelly, who was imprisoned for planting the Shankill fish shop bomb that killed 10 people in October 1993; Michael Caraher, the IRA's Border sniper, who received sentences totalling 105 years in 1999 for a series of murders; James McArdle, who was sentenced to 25 years for the 1996 London Docklands bomb at Canary Wharf; and Torrens Knight, guilty of killing seven people at the Rising Sun pub in Greysteel, County Londonderry, in 1993.

The release of so many high-profile killers and bombers angered victims' families on both sides of the sectarian divide. Even Stone, who would have faced another 15 years in prison had he not been released, recognised the controversial nature of the process.

He said: "I realise those in the nationalist and republican community will view my release with anger. In a similar way the loyalist community will be saddened and angered at the republican prisoners who will be released.

"But times do move on and we now have to support the peace process. My war is over."

Violent history

Bobby Sands was one of 11 republican prisoners to die during the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981
Now virtually empty -- the dozen or so remaining prisoners are to be moved to other prisons -- the story of the Maze is the story of Northern Ireland's violent history. Flashpoints during its volatile history include:

The "Dirty Protest": When the first IRA prisoners arrived at the prison in 1976, they regarded themselves as prisoners of war and refused to wear prison uniforms. In protest at the ending of "special category status," they began a four-year campaign during which they wore only a prison blanket and later escalated the action by refusing to clean out their cells and smearing excrement on the walls.

Hunger strikes: When the "dirty protest" failed, republican inmates organised two hunger strikes, in 1980 and 1981. In all, 11 men, including Bobby Sands, the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, starved themselves to death.

Mass breakouts: In 1974, 33 IRA prisoners escaped, of which one was killed and the rest recaptured. In an escape in 1975, nine prisoners evaded capture, while in 1983 38 inmates escaped. Some were recaptured but others were never found.

The murder of Billy "King Rat" Wright: In December 1997 members of the Irish National Liberation Army murdered Loyalist Volunteer Force leader Billy Wright inside the prison. Wright was sitting in a prison van waiting to be driven to the visiting block when the three INLA inmates climbed across the roof of an 'H-block' and shot him several times.

Mo Mowlam's visit: In January 1998 then-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam entered the Maze in a political gamble to save the stalled peace process. She met with Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Freedom Fighters prisoners who had threatened to end their support for the peace process and had warned that the loyalist ceasefire was "extremely fragile." After the meeting, the prisoners agreed that the Ulster Democratic Party, the political representatives of the UDA and the UFF, should continue in the talks.

'Knock it down'

Maze Prison was subject to many escape attempts during its three-decade history
The closure of the Maze leaves Northern Ireland with just three prisons -- Magilligan, Maghberry and a young offenders' centre. Although there is speculation that the 150-acre site will become a museum or even a sports centre, the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has no doubts what should happen to it.

"If its days are numbered I hope it is razed to the ground as quickly as possible after it is finally emptied, and confined to history, so that no one should be tempted to make expensive rehabilitation of its unsatisfactory structures," said Sir David.

Said one prison officer: "These are the last days of the Maze. It is a place with a history that will never be forgotten. If it becomes a museum, it should be a black museum."

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?