The IRA’s mass breakout from the Maze Prison in 1983 was the biggest escape in British penal history. Even Sir James Hennessey, who conducted the British government’s inquiry into the event, likened it to Colditz, and said it was “…a matter of some congratulation for the Republican movement.”
Thirty eight prisoners broke free on Sunday, September 25. Half of them were recaptured within two days, but 19 made it to the Republic of Ireland and four eventually got as far as the United States. One prisoner had never been seen or heard of again.
The intriguing minute-by-minute account of how the prisoners successfully took over an entire H Block in what was regarded as one of the most secure prisons in Europe, is told in a BBC Northern Ireland documentary – Breakout - by three of the key strategists – Bobby Storey, Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane and Gerry Kelly, now a Junior Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive.
For the first time in 25 years a member of staff at the Maze has given an account from the Prison Officers’ perspective. Campbell Courtney, along with seven colleagues, was later commended for his bravery. Campbell was shot in the leg as he pursued a fleeing prisoner. Fellow officer Jimmy Ferris died from a heart attack after being stabbed.
The programme reveals how inmates embarked on a strategy of false friendliness with prison staff – getting on first-name terms, conforming to demands, even making cups of tea and helping out with crosswords – all to gain a relaxation of prison security. This enabled them to capture the prison food lorry in preparation for boldly driving out of the front gate. And it also shows how, in real World War Two style, one group of prisoners lived under floorboards in a ‘safe house’ for two weeks before making it across the border.
Breakout is a Hot Shot Films production for BBC Northern Ireland and is on Monday September 22 on BBC One Northern Ireland at 9pm. It is narrated by internationally acclaimed actor Brian Cox, who coincidentally stars as a prison escapee in the new feature film, ‘The Escapist'.