DUBLIN—IRA prisoners in the notorious Maze prison in Northern Ireland were encouraged by their leaders to build an escape tunnel from the jail in 1997, but the commanders secretly planned to sabotage any escape attempt, and only endorsed the project to boost morale and keep inmates off drugs.
The leadership of the Irish Republican Army planned to thwart any attempt to use the tunnel because they feared the escape of hard-line IRA men might upset the delicate balance of the peace process, newly released papers allege.
The Irish Times says that IRA leaders in the prison supported the peace process that culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and feared a tunnel would facilitate the escape of prisoners who opposed it. However, they saw value in the attempt “as a form of occupational therapy to keep prisoners occupied and away from drugs.”
The bizarre revelation is contained in a series of papers and documents dating from 1991 to 1998 and newly released by Ireland’s National Archives service. Although the papers have been released to the media and hard copies are available to view in Dublin, they are not yet available online.
When the part-finished tunnel was discovered by jailers in 1997, Breidge Gadd, a member of the Northern Ireland Probation Board, told Seán Ó hUiginn, the head of the Anglo-Irish Secretariat in Belfast, that had the tunnel been completed, IRA leadership in the jail had “no intention” of allowing it to be used, the Irish Times reports.
Ó hUiginn said in an internal memo that Gadd told him the republican leadership in the prison always intended to intervene “to halt the escape attempt shortly before the tunnel was finished.”
The Irish Independent says that Ó hUiginn wrote that Gadd had criticized 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.”
“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,” the newspaper notes.
“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,” Ó hUiginn wrote.
“The project would have had value as a form of occupational therapy to keep prisoners occupied and away from drugs,” Gadd reportedly said.
The memo noted that the republican command structure would have been aware that, had the escape succeeded, the prisoners concerned would in all likelihood have been rearrested not long afterwards and would have found themselves back in prison paying a stiff penalty, all at a time when, conceivably, a renewed ceasefire might be letting many of their colleagues out.
“In addition, 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 Ó hUiginn.
He added that the republican leadership in the prison “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.”
HM Prison Maze, which exclusively housed paramilitary detainees, was widely considered one of the most secure prisons in the world, with armed guards in watch towers, a 15-foot perimeter fence, and individual “H-Blocks” surrounded by 18-foot concrete walls.
In September 1983 it was the site of the biggest mass breakout in British history, when 35 prisoners escaped in the so-called “Great Escape.”