At the height of the “unrest” in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, the British government jailed hundreds of Irish Provisional Republican Army (IRA) paramilitaries inside the infamous Maze Prison. Considered the safest penitentiary in Europe, the Labyrinth was supposed to be escape-proof, that is, until 38 IRA prisoners stage the largest escape in history British in September 1983.
Built on a former Royal Air Force base 10 miles outside the capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast, the maximum security prison consisted of eight capital H-shaped prison blocks. These H-blocks became battlegrounds for IRA prisoners who had led a violent campaign to end British rule in Northern Ireland. After the British government stripped convicted paramilitaries of their special status as political prisoners in 1976, IRA inmates wore blankets instead of prison uniforms and refused to shower or empty their chamber pots. The protest culminated in a hunger strike in 1981 in which 10 Republican prisoners, including the head of the IRA at Maze Prison, Bobby Sands, died.
IRA inmates, who were serving time for crimes ranging from murder to possession of explosives, viewed the maze as a prisoner of war camp. Believing it to be their duty to attempt an escape, the IRA leaders detained inside H-Block 7 spent four months in the summer of 1983 preparing for a daring escape.
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First, the IRA inmates became friendly with the guards
The prisoners first embarked on a charm offensive to establish fellowship with the prison officers, getting to know them by first name and gathering information. Senior IRA leaders serving as medics used this camaraderie to gain better access around the prison, even allowed to perform cleaning duties inside the “circle,” the nerve center in the middle. of block H.
Knowing that officers only carried batons for self-defense, inmates smuggled six handguns with silencers and knives inside the prison, although it is still not known how. After taking control of Block H at gunpoint, the prisoners planned to hijack a food delivery truck, which they learned had not been searched on entry or exit. from prison. Having decided to hold the escape on a Sunday – the quietest day of the week with the fewest personnel on duty – IRA leaders set September 25, 1983 as the day of their great escape.
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IRA prisoners seized H-Block 7 with smuggled weapons
That afternoon, five IRA prisoners entered the circle of H-Block 7 to perform their cleaning duties. Everything seemed routine until shortly after 2:30 p.m. when Brendan McFarlane, who had succeeded Sands as the IRA’s commanding officer inside the maze, yelled “Bumper!” Hearing the preset password, the inmate nurses flashed their weapons and overpowered the unarmed prison guards.
As officers routinely kept the strong bulletproof door to the control room open for ventilation due to a prison design flaw, an inmate identified by guards as Gerry Kelly was able to point his gun through a gate towards Agent John Adams. Kelly ordered Adams to move away from the radio, alarm and telephone systems in the room and lie on the floor with his hands behind his head. “I have nothing to lose; you know what I’m doing,” said Kelly, who was serving two life sentences in connection with a deadly IRA bombing in London.
When a guard unexpectedly emerged from a nearby toilet and distracted the prisoners, Adams attempted to sound the alarm. According to Adams, Kelly then fired two shots, the second of which hit him above his left eye but was found not to be fatal. (Kelly never admitted pulling the trigger.)
As the five medics secure the circle, lookouts in direct line of sight entered each of the four wings of the block and attacked the guards with weapons including a gun, knife, screwdriver, and hammer. Within minutes, the IRA took full control of H-Block 7 of the 24 officers on duty.
After confining the prison officers to two playrooms, the inmates ordered a dozen of them to remove their uniforms, which they then put on. The IRA members then tied up the guards, placed pillow cases over their heads and issued a warning, “This is an IRA operation. We’re not here to get revenge or punish you for the hunger strikes, but if you interfere with the escape you will be dealt with quickly.
The prison break has become deadly
Prisoners hijacked the food delivery truck when it arrived at 3:25 p.m., but their escape was delayed as IRA intelligence officers spent precious minutes rummaging through prison files for details of the informants while removing all photographs and documents that could help them in their own recovery. At 3:50 p.m., 37 prisoners piled into the back of the food truck, while Kelly lay in the passenger side floor with a gun pointed at the officer driving the van to ensure compliance while driving to the main door. , the last obstacle to freedom.
At the gate, nine of the prisoners disguised as guards stormed the lodge where officers entered and left and seized them at gunpoint. The delay in leaving Block H, however, meant that guards were starting to arrive for their next shifts. As their numbers increased, the police fought back against the detainees.
In the middle of the fray, prison guard James Ferris rushed out of the lodge and yelled at the guard at the pedestrian gate to sound the alarm. A prisoner, identified by the guards as Dermot Finucane, pursued and stabbed Ferris three times in the chest. The officer collapsed and later died of a heart attack. The prisoner, meanwhile, continued to the pedestrian barrier, where he stabbed two officers arriving for their shift as well as the guard officer before he could sound the alarm.
When quick-witted guards wedged their cars between the prison gates to block the path of the food truck, the inmates opened the vehicle’s back door and fled on foot, scaling the outer fence to freedom. .
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Half of the fugitives fled to Ireland
While some of the escapees hijacked cars, others fled on foot into the countryside. A massive police and military manhunt resulted in 19 prisoners being recaptured within 24 hours of the escape. Most of the fugitives returned to their original cells inside H-Block 7 after their brief flicker of freedom.
Those who remained on the run hid in barns and safe houses before the IRA facilitated their passage to the Republic of Ireland. Several continued to the United States under new identities, while others resumed their paramilitary activities. Three of the fugitives subsequently died in IRA operations, while Kelly and McFarlane were arrested in the Netherlands in 1986 and returned to the Labyrinth with several other escapees extradited from Ireland and the United States.
The escape from Maze prison boosted the morale of the IRA, but it left physical and mental damage to prison officers. In addition to Ferris ‘death, Adams’ shooting, and the non-fatal stabbing of three other guards, 13 officers were beaten and 42 subsequently suffered from nervous disorders. Following the early release of hundreds of inmates under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Maze Prison closed in 2000. The H-Blocks were demolished in 2006.