Irish Republican News · September 26, 2008
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
IRISH REPUBLICAN NEWS: Breakout
Breakout

On the 25th anniversary of the mass escape from the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, some of those who took part have revealed the dramatic events surrounding the escape for a new documentary.

Described as Margaret Thatcher’s breakers yard, Long Kesh on the outskirts of Lisburn was hailed as the most secure prison in western Europe.

Such was the scale of the operation at the prison, situated inside a British military base, that it cost a whopping 42 million pounds a year to run.

Movement of the 400-plus prisoners was strictly controlled and the level of security and location of the site was all geared toward making escape impossible.

That was until September 25 1983 when 38 IRA prisoners housed in H-block 7 put in motion an escape plot that had been months in the planning.

After taking over the wing by overpowering the guards with handguns smuggled into the prison, the break-out -- the biggest since the Second World War escape from Colditz camp -- began in earnest.

Using an internal food lorry as transportation, the would-be escapees made it as far as the jail’s final gate before a chaotic brak for freedom.

The IRA men, some of whom were now dressed in prison warden’s uniforms, ended up in a struggle with prison staff who were coming on duty.

During the fracas one prison officer, James Ferris, died after suffering a massive heart attack.

With the 25th anniversary of the escape this week, three of the IRA’s most senior members have relived the events before, during and in the years after the escape in a documentary Breakout produced by Hotshot films.

Out of the 38 prisoners who broke free, half were recaptured.

Bobby Storey, now Sinn Féin’s Belfast chairman, was one of those captured within hours.

He said that regardless of his personal status he felt “euphoric” at having achieved what was previously thought to be impossible.

Nineteen PoWs made it over the border and four eventually got as far as the United States.

One prisoner has never been seen or heard of again.

Brendan Byrne, executive producer of Hot Shot Films, said he had been wanting to make a film about the escape for a number of years but felt until now the timing wasn’t right.

“I suppose the 25th anniversary gave an opportunity to tell the story in an historical context.

“What took place at the Maze, regardless of political beliefs, was a remarkable human achievement.

“Had this happened anywhere else in a different political climate it would have been the subject of a best-selling book and a Hollywood blockbuster by now.

“As it is I don’t think it has received the attention that such an event deserves and I would hope that we have portrayed what happened in an accurate, fair and balanced manner.”

North Belfast republicans Gerry Kelly and Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane spent over two years on the run before being captured and extradited from Holland in December 1986.

Following the escape Gerry Kelly spent two weeks hiding under floorboards before being transported across the border and then on to the continent.

“It was a huge event politically but from a personal point of view it was me gaining freedom after being in jail for ten years,’’ he said.

“I was doing a very long prison sentence at the time, so escaping and seeing a big section of the world was an enormous event for me.

“In Margaret Thatcher’s words it was the biggest crisis in British penal history - she was boasting of this impregnable fortress.

“Ten people had died during the Hunger Strike, there had been six years of protest and she had stated the only way to get out of the prison was in a box.”

Speaking of the changes since the 1983 escape, the now Stormont junior minister said: “I think it puts in perspective the role that prisoners have played politically.

“I had two priorities while in jail, education and escape.

“You can go into jail and come out worse or better and I believe that most republican prisoners chose to use the time to better themselves.”

* ‘Breakout’ can be watched on the BBC iPlayer website at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00dnck8/

© 2008 Irish Republican News