Page last updated at 22:17 GMT, Monday, 22 September 2008 23:17 UK

Prison officer tells of Maze jailbreak

Bobby Storey, Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane and Gerry Kelly
IRA escapers Bobby Storey, Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane and Gerry Kelly are interviewed

A Maze prison officer at the time of the 1983 IRA mass jailbreak has told his side of the story for the first time in a new BBC Northern Ireland documentary.

Thirty-eight prisoners broke out in the biggest prison escape in British penal history.

Half of them were recaptured within two days, but 19 made it to the Republic of Ireland and four eventually got as far as the United States. One prisoner has never been seen or heard of again.

Even Sir James Hennessey, who conducted the British government's inquiry into the event, likened it to Colditz, and said it was "a matter of some congratulation for the Republican movement".

'Breakout' gives a minute-by-minute account of how the prisoners took over an entire H-Block in what was regarded as one of the most secure prisons in Europe.

Campbell Courtney
Prison officer Campbell Courtney was commended for his bravery
Among those interviewed are three of the key strategists - Bobby Storey, Brendan 'Bik' McFarlane and Gerry Kelly, who is now a junior minister in the Northern Ireland Executive.

Prison officer Campbell Courtney speaks publicly about the escape for the first time in 25 years.

Mr Campbell was shot in the leg as he pursued an escaping prisoner. Along with seven colleagues, he was later commended for his bravery.

Fellow officer Jimmy Ferris died from a heart attack after being stabbed.

The programme reveals how inmates' strategy to get close to prison staff included conforming to demands, making cups of tea and helping out with crosswords.

The intention was to create the conditions which allowed the inmates to capture the prison food lorry in preparation for driving out the front gate.

The programme also describes how one group of prisoners lived under floorboards in a 'safe house' for two weeks before escaping across the border.

H Blocks
This is an important historical story and one that deserves to be told
Michael Beattie
Producer Michael Beattie said the escape remains a controversial subject even after 25 years.

"It's difficult to make a documentary that everyone will be happy with," he said.

"At one level, it's a ripping yarn to stand alongside other escape stories.

"But it also left James Ferris dead, John Adams shot in the face, and Campbell Courtney shot in the leg. Many other officers were stabbed as well."

Praising Mr Courtney for telling his story on film, Mr Beattie said he was disappointed that more prison staff had not been willing to appear on camera.

"There's no doubt that many of them showed a great deal of courage in trying to prevent the escape, but even in our improved political climate many of them still fear that their safety is at risk.

"Nor was it as easy as some may think to get the three leading Republicans to agree to the film.

"We had to go through formal requests and a series of meetings before getting the go-ahead. But this is an important historical story and one that deserves to be told."

A Hot Shot Films production, Breakout, was broadcast on Monday 22 September on BBC One Northern Ireland.

Hunger strikes: 25 years on
05 May 06 |  Northern Ireland
Maze break-out 'party' condemned
19 Sep 03 |  Northern Ireland


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