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HM Maze Prison

HM Maze Prison (known colloqually as The Maze) is disused prison sited at the former RAF station at Long Kesh (it is still known as Long Kesh by many Irish Republicans) near Lisburn[?], nine miles outside Belfast, in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The prison and its inmates have played a prominent role in recent Irish history.

Following the introduction of Internment in 1971 there was "Operation Demetrius[?]" with raids for 452 suspects on August 9 1971. The police and army arrested 342 people, but key IRA members had escaped and many of those arrested were released. Those behind Operation Demetrius were accused of bungling, by arresting many of the wrong people and using out of date information. By 1972 there were 924 internees.

Initially the internees were housed, segregated different paramilitary groups, in Nissen huts at a disused airfield that became the Long Kesh Detention Centre. The internees and their supporters agitated for improvements in their conditions and status, they saw themselves as political prisoners rather than common criminals. In 1974 William Whitelaw introduced Special Category Status for those sentenced for crimes relating to the civil violence. There were 1100 Special Category prisoners at that time.

However Special Category was short-lived, believing that the prisoner officers could not control the prisoners with these privileges the new Secretary of State Merlyn Rees ended Special Category Status from March 1, 1976. Republicans convicted of offences after that date were housed in the eight new "H-Blocks" that had been constructed at Long Kesh, now officially HM Prison Maze. Older prisoners remained in separate compounds.

As soon as prisoners were transferred to the new blocks they refused to conform, again arguing that they were not common criminals. Their first act of defiance was to refuse to wear the prison uniforms. Not allowed their own clothes they fashioned garments out of bed sheets. Prisoners on that protest were "on the blanket". By 1978 more than 300 men had joined the protest. The government refused to yield and so the prisoners escalated their protests - They refused to wash and smeared their own excrement on the walls. But again the new 1979 government of Margaret Thatcher stood firm.

Republicans outside the prisoner took the battle to the media and both 'sides' fought for public support. Inside the prison the supporters took another step and organized hunger strikes.

On October 27, 1980 six republican prisoners refused food and demanded political status. In December they called off the hunger strike. However, Bobby Sands, the leader of the Provisional IRA prisoners, and a number of others began a second action on March 1, 1981 and outside the prison in a major publicity coup, Sands was nominated for and won the Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election . But the British government was still resisting and on May 5 after 66 days on hunger strike Sands died. Another nine had died by the end of August. At Bobby Sands' funeral in Belfast over 75,000 people attended.

The six surviving hunger strikers ended the protest in October. Within a week the government allowed them to wear their own clothes, one of their key demands.

On September 23, 1983, the Maze suffered the largest break-out by prisoners from a British prison. 38 prisoners hijacked a lorry and smashed their way out, one prison officer died (of a heart attack after being stabbed) and another five were injured. Nineteen were soon recaptured, but the remainder escaped. One of the escapees was later involved in the 1984 Brighton bombing.

Over the 1980s the government slowly introduced changes, granting political status in all but name. Republican and loyalist prisoners were housed according to group, they organised themselves along military lines and exercised wide control over their respective H-Blocks even to the extent of killing other prisoners over political differences, such as the LVF leader Billy Wright being killed in December 1997 by INLA prisoners.

The prisoners also played a significant role in the peace process. On January 9, 1998 the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam[?], paid a surprise visit to the prison to talk to members of the UDA/UFF including Johnny Adair and Michael Stone[?]. They had voted for their political representatives to pull out of talks. Shortly after Mowlam's visit, they changed their minds, allowing their representatives to continue talks that would lead to the Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998. Afterwards, the prison was emptied of its paramilitary prisoners as the groups they represented agreed to the ceasefire. In the two years following the agreement, 428 prisoners were released. On September 29 2000 the remaining 4 prisoners at Maze were transferred to other establishments in Northern Ireland and the Maze prison was closed.

External links

BBC: Inside the Maze, a history (http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/in_depth/northern_ireland/2000/maze_prison/default.stm)

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