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Friday, 9 January, 1998, 15:37 GMT
Inside the Maze Prison
inside prison
Loyalist paramilitary slogans painted on the walls of H-block 7

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam held her unprecedented face-to-face meetings with loyalist and republican prisoners in the Maze on Friday 9 January. The previous day, journalists were given rare access to the jail -- to counter suggestions that inmates were enjoying an unduly lax regime. The BBC Ireland Correspondent, Denis Murray, reports from inside the H-blocks.

H Block 7 is home to some of the hardest of the hard men on the wings of the block reserved for members of the largest loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Freedom Fighters, whom Mo Mowlam will meet on Friday.

Inmates are allowed 24-hour free association
Inmates are allowed 24-hour free association
Today, there was open access for a group of journalists to the blocks, wings and inmates. All the prisoners at the jail are segregated into their paramilitary groups, and answer to their commanding officers.

They have 24-hour free association on the wings.

It is prisoners from this wing at H7 - who voted for their political representatives to pull out of the peace talks - who will meet Mo Mowlam.

All five members of the delegation are inmates - among them, Johnny Adair, serving a lengthy sentence for directing terrorism, and Michael Stone, who murdered three people in a grenade and gun attack on an IRA funeral 10 years ago.

The prisoners here refuse to discuss the meetings or political issues in general, but there were some brief looks ahead to it.

Bobby Philpott (right) tells Denis Murray he is in favour of the talks
Bobby Philpott is serving 15 years for attempted murder.

"Mowlam promised to come and visit us when she was in Shadow [Cabinet], so I'm hopeful that the meetings goes positive, 'cos I'm one of the people that support the party and the talks," he said.

So she said when she was in Opposition that she would come and see you when she got into Government?

"She made that promise."

The aim of giving completely open access to a group of journalists and camera operators on loyalist and republican wings was for governors, staff and inmates to stress that the authorities are in control of the prison.

Mogg: wants to dispel rumours the Maze is a holiday camp
Mogg: wants to dispel rumours the Maze is a holiday camp
The Governor, Martin Mogg, spoke to journalists and we were given open access to wings occupied by both UDA and UFF prisoners in one case and IRA inmates in the other case.

Mr Mogg said the Secretary of State's decision to come here was brave.

He said he was totally behind her and he didn't feel undermined by the visit.

He also said that he could absolutely guarantee her safety.

The prisoners who will meet her have already met their political leadership here at the jail.

As they came back to their H-block they said that the meeting had been useful but they really hadn't had much indication from that that anything had really changed.

What they wanted to talk about today was the regime in the prison, which they and the prison authorities both said was very different to some of the reports outside.

They said the prison authorities controlled the jail.

IRA prisoners answer journalists' questions
IRA prisoners answer journalists' questions
The IRA prisoners in H-block 8 said they backed Sinn Fein's approach to the talks and they underlined how they see their role inside the jail.

"Our duty as political prisoners is to get out of here whenever we can," said Padraig Wilson, an IRA convict.

"And against that background people need to look at from the great escape of 1983 we have only managed to successfully achieve the escape of one other republican prisoner in December.

"That speaks volumes about the ongoing daily battle that takes place between us and those whose job it is to keep us here."

A republican poster decorates the games room
A paramilitary poster decorates the games room
The IRA prisoners may meet Mowlam, but the key encounter is that with the loyalists -- for now, the focus of the peace process.

But in their blocks are vivid posters and paintings of paramilitary symbols, stark reminders of the crimes -- to many, the atrocities -- that have put them in jail.

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