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BBC NI chief security correspondent, Brian Rowan
The Maze prison is unique because of the effect it has had on the community
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Thursday, 27 July, 2000, 18:37 GMT 19:37 UK
The prison that served its time
A loyalist rooftop protest at the Maze in 1997
Prison unrest - a loyalist rooftop protest at the Maze in 1997
BBC NI's chief security correspondent, Brian Rowan, looks back on the history of the Maze prison near Belfast, which this week sees most of its paramilitary prisoners released early under the Good Friday peace accord.

It has been a jail like no other - a place of protest, hunger strike and death.

It didn't cause the Troubles but it became part of them and it contributed to them

Duncan McLaughlan Former Maze governor
There has been murder on its wings and a mass escape. That was in 1983 when almost 40 IRA prisoners, including the then republican jail leader Brendan MacFarlane, broke out.

The Maze prison has held men convicted of some of the most horrific killings and bombings committed during Northern Ireland's 30 years of violence, known as the Troubles.

They were also men who later talked peace.

The Maze is a jail the British Government aims to close in a few months' time.

Under the early release terms of the Good Friday Agreement, 340 prisoners have been freed and another 88 will be released this week - 86 of them on Friday 28 July.

Sean Kelly
Shankill bomber Sean Kelly being released
Among those getting out are Sean Kelly - the IRA man convicted of the 1993 Shankill Road bombing in Belfast in which nine civilians were killed.

Also being freed are the members of the loyalist gang responsible for the pub shooting a week later at the little village of Greysteel near Londonderry, when eight people were killed.

The violence of that week marked it out as one of the most bloody in the history of the Troubles.

The shrinking prison population and the decision to close the Maze has meant job cuts for prison officers.

Since April 1998, 300 have left the service and another 750 will go by the end of September.

By this 28 July, the Maze will be virtually empty - just 16 prisoners will remain inside and at the point of closure, later this year, anyone still being held will be transferred to another prison.

The Maze will be remembered for its many battles behind bars; for the blanket protest, the dirty protest and the republican hunger strike in 1981 in which ten men died.

Weeks before his death, one of the ten hunger strikers, Bobby Sands, had been elected the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

H-blocks at the Maze
H-blocks: 16 prisoners will remain after mass release
The protests and hunger strike were sparked by a decision back in the mid-70s to end so-called "special category status".

Republicans and loyalists viewed themselves as prisoners of war but the scrapping of special category status meant they would be treated as criminals.

Duncan McLaughlan, a former governor who recently retired from the Prison Service said: "The average prisoner just wants to do his time quietly, get his head down and have as peaceful a time as possible and get out, so he will conform.

The idea of just wiping it clean or demolishing it isn't the way - it should be retained as a place where people can go

Laurence McKeown Former prisoner

"With the Maze you had a cohesive group of prisoners who operated from an ideological base and as we know, the Maze became a battlefield in the fight between principally the republican movement and the government, and staff were on the rough end of that one.

"There are many notorious prisons in the world... Alcatraz and Devil's Island. None had any significant effect or influence on the life of the community in which it was based.

"Maze is the one exception to this. It is a significant exception and it became inextricably bound up in the political difficulties of Northern Ireland. It didn't cause the Troubles but it became part of them and it contributed to them," he said.

Influence 'never broken'

The influence of paramilitary organisations was never broken on the wings of the Maze and many of the demands of the hunger strikers were later conceded.

A situation developed in which republicans and loyalists were no longer locked in their cells and, as the peace process progressed, outside delegations were allowed into the jail on a regular basis to consult with the prisoners.

For some time, many of them had been thinking and talking peace.

The veteran loyalist Gusty Spence, who was one of the first men brought to the Maze, or Long Kesh as it was known then, said it was obvious that an accommodation needed to be worked out:

He said: "We said that if you rule out the mass extermination of one side or another or the mass evacuation of one side or another, you're left with accommodation. Let's get on with accommodation."

It was Spence who wrote and delivered the loyalist ceasefire statement in October 1994.

At that time, many key loyalists, including convicted UFF leader Johnny Adair, were being held in the Maze and their approval for the ceasefire was essential. But it was different on the republican side.

Laurence McKeown:
Laurence McKeown: Former hunger-striker
Laurence McKeown was one of the IRA hunger strikers in 1981 and had refused food for 70 days. He was released in 1992 and now works for an ex-prisoners committee.

He said: "I think the prisoners themselves said in a statement they wouldn't want to be a bargaining tool in terms of any negotiations that were going on, that the republican movement should decide what it needed to do and their release or otherwise shouldn't be part of that.

"I've often said though, if it was a case that republican prisoners were opposed to it, given the very close tie-in they have with the whole psyche of the republican community, then it would have made it very very difficult for the republican movement.

"The fact was, and it was known by the republican movement, the prisoners were very much tied into it and it was much more a co-operative thing rather than what happened on the loyalist side."

Closure next step

The prisoners' release was negotiated in the political talks which followed the ceasefires and, now, a little over two years after the Good Friday Agreement, most republicans and loyalists have been freed.

Closure of the Maze is the next step, but Laurence McKeown says that will not exorcise the ghosts of the past.

"There have been so many lives tied up with it, both people who were actually in the place either as prison officers or prisoners, and also families who've been travelling to that place for years," he said.

"The idea of just wiping it clean or demolishing it isn't the way. I think it should be retained as a place where people can go.

"You don't wipe things clean by denying that they existed, and nor do I think that by retaining some place such as an element of Long Kesh, that you keep on the ghosts of the past.

"I think what you do is allow a space for those ghosts to quietly disappear."

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See also:

15 Feb 00 | Northern Ireland
Prison officers apply to leave service
19 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Killer loses release challenge
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