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Thursday, 27 July, 2000, 16:22 GMT 17:22 UK
Dark legacy of the Maze
Maze Prison watchtower
The Maze Prison has become a symbol of the Troubles
The Maze is closing, but the long shadow of the prison regime will remain to haunt people on both sides of Northern Ireland's conflict.

The pain is shared between people who were inside the barbed wire fences, as well as those who waited for them on the outside.

The prisoners who considered themselves soldiers in opposing armies, and their families from loyalist or republican communities are having to come to terms with their own experiences.

Prison Officers memorial
The Prison Service memorial stone in the Maze
Those who have served time in the Maze are seen by sympathisers as having paid a high price, but they at least now have the privilege to reflect on their time inside.

The 29 prison officers who died during the Troubles do not have that luxury. Inside the prison grounds there is a stone memorial plinth to give some comfort to their families.

Seanna Walsh says those in charge of the H Blocks tried to use the place as a means of breaking republicans like him.


Life on the outside can be a bit of an anticlimax

Laurence McKeown Former IRA prisoner

He and another former IRA prisoner Laurence McKeown are proud they came through, and their memories of the Maze are remarkable.

"It holds some of the bleakest moments, it also holds some of the warmest memories for myself," said McKeown.

He remembers the mass protest when republicans wore only blankets instead of prison uniform to make the point that they regarded themselves as political prisoners, not criminals.

Laurence McKeown
Proud: Ex-IRA hunger striker Laurence McKeown
He survived the IRA hunger strike which started in 1981 and left ten other men dead.

"I probably experienced during my time the broadest possible emotions that you could have, into the deepest possible length.

"I've often said that life on the outside can be a bit of an anticlimax afterwards."

Mixed emotions

Seanna Walsh's recollections are just as bittersweet.

"My freedom was taken away from me and I was held in there, but it was a brilliant place to be.

"We had some good times in it. If you're all there with your comrades you come together, you start to bond as a family."

Whatever sort of life was going on behind bars, the inmates' real familes were left behind to cope as best they could.

In loyalist west Belfast, a minibus leaves twice a week to take relatives to see those still inside the Maze.

Julie Hull
An anxious wait for Julie Hull
Julie Hull has just made her last ever trip to the jail to see her partner, who is due to be released on 28 July.

She describes the seven years she has had to spend waiting as an emotional rollercoaster.

"It's very, very hard. You have to learn to cope on your own, but you just have to get on with it.

"If anything, his time in prison has brought us closer together. Obviously we haven't got the physical aspect to it but we depend on each other - we get strength from each other - and we have a better relationship now because of that."

She is not sure how she will cope when her partner gets out, and admits to being extremely nervous.

"Now he's coming home again and there's someone else to consider again. We have to get used to each other again because he's been away so long. It'll be like strangers for a while, but hopefully things will fall back into place."

Sandra and Billy Stitt
Difficult homecoming: Sandra and Billy Stitt
At home in east Belfast, Sandra Stitt has already been through the changes that came when her husband, Billy, came back from the Maze three years ago.

She says the homecoming was a very diffcult time, but her message to anyone in Julie's situation is simple.

"You just have to take one day at a time. All I can say to the people who are getting prisoners home is that it will be hard, but you will get over these stumbling blocks. Just try really hard."

Seanna Walsh gives an insight into how the time the prisoners spent in the Maze has changed them forever.


I don't think the ghosts of the past can be exorcised

Seanna Walsh Former IRA prisoner

"I don't think the ghosts of the past can be exorcised, and to a large extent I still carry a lot of those ghosts on my shoulder.

"If they decide to knock the jail down, they'll not exorcise the ghosts for myself and a lot of the other prisoners who went through that whole period with me."

Laurence McKeown agrees: "I think the idea of just wiping it clean or demolishing it isn't actually the way. It should be retained as a place where people should go.

"You don't wipe things away or wipe them clean by trying to deny that they existed.

"Nor do I think that by retaining some place, like an element of Long Kesh, you keep on the ghosts of the past.

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

The Maze Prison is likely to be closed completely by the end of the year. The bricks, mortar and barbed wire might well be razed, but the place has made an indelible impression on many lives.

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