It really was a Great Escape
It really was a Great Escape


By Phil Mac Giollabhain (

Forty years ago today, the British establishment was rocked by the biggest prison escape in the history of these islands.

The ingenious audacity of the plan has been told on the big screen.

The escape was a complete intelligence victory that ranked with the operation carried out by the Dublin ASU on November 21st, 1920.

Essentially, the Brits didn’t have a clue that quiet Sunday in 1983 as the plan was about to be put into action.

It is fair to say that the Great Escape from H7 40 years ago today was the end of Britain’s attempt to break the IRA in the prisons.

Their policy of Criminalisation was an attempt to de-legitimise the struggle for Irish sovereignty over the entire island.

The world started paying attention when Bobby Sands was elected to Westminster while on hunger strike for political status.

His funeral was a global event, and nine other POWs followed him, victims of Thatcher’s intransigence.

The British contention that these men were “Ordinary Decent Criminals” was shown to be yet another lie from Perfidious Albion.

As Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu famously observed, “all warfare is based on deception”.

The escape plan was to soften up the screws by convincing them that they had won the battle against the POWs and they would start to conform to the prison regime.

It took time, patience and discipline.

The objective was to get the prison guards to…well…drop their guard.

This was the behaviour of captured soldiers.

The H Blocks had replaced the cages at Long Kesh (an ex-RAF base outside Belfast) as part of the Criminalisation strategy.

HMP Maze (cellular) was meant to be the “most secure prison in Europe”.

Well, it probably was if it had been used to house criminals and not disciplined soldiers in an army!

It quickly became apparent to the Óglaigh planning the escape that gaining control of the “circle”, the middle part of the H, was crucial to success.

Re-imagining the food van as a means of escape was brilliant.

The breakout itself went like clockwork until they got to the main gate.

A few screws at the gatehouse realised what was happening and tried to prevent the escape.

The British sentry looked down from his vantage point and saw what he thought was a brawl between prison warders.

It was a helpful deception.

Meanwhile, back in H7, there were screws tied up in their underwear-the poor dears.

The confusion at the main gate was enough, and the 38 IRA volunteers poured into the countryside around the prison.

Some were quickly re-captured, others made it to safety.

I’m proud to call one of them in particular, a very close friend.

Now, dear reader, I remember EXACTLY where I was when the news came through of the escape, ach sin scéal eile.

The damage to British prestige by the breakout was a global event, and the Criminalisation strategy, which had started in 1976 as a way of destroying the morale of Republican POWs and smearing their struggle, was over.

This is what history feels like.

Those forty years have seen many changes.

One of the most significant is that Sinn Féin is the biggest political party on the island.

Moreover, the own goal of Brexit in the Rising centenary year of 2016 has again put Partition on the table as an international issue.

Once more, our exiled children in America and gallant allies in Europe are on the side of Ireland.

The confected polity that the 38 were born into is now terminally ill.

Even Nigel Farage can see what’s coming down the line.

Indeed, I reckon that Mr Brexit and his mates would now quietly jettison Narne Arne to get their Singapore-on-Thames.

I wish them well!

The blanket protest, dirty protest, two hunger strikes, Bobby’s election and the Great Escape, destroyed Britain’s counter-insurgency strategy in the prisons.

Consequently, any peace process had to involve the POWs in Long Kesh and Armagh.

In many ways, the H-Blocks were the Frongoch of the war in the Six Counties.

Prisons and escaping from them are a central part of the Irish Republican tradition.

The well-spoken war criminals in Westminster simply didn’t understand that.

Forty years ago today, they experienced some consequential learning.

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