21 IRA men escape from Maze Prison
The Maze Prison was proclaimed to be the most secure prison in Europe. It was also one of the most expensive, run at a cost of £42 million per annum for some 400 prisoners. It certainly needed to be secure. As The Troubles tore through Northern Ireland like a bush-fire, the Maze was where prisoners from both sides of the Loyalist and Republican paramilitary divide were housed. Built to contain the country’s most dangerous men, it became the epicentre of many Republican protest, including ‘The Blanket’ protests of the late ‘70s, where prisoners refused to wear prison clothes and engaged in a dirty protest against the removal of their Special Category Status, and the Hunger strikes of 1981 , where 10 IRA prisoners under the leadership of Bobby Sands starved themselves to death. While on hunger strike, Sands won the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election, becoming the first Sinn Féin MP. The IRA hunger strikes were an epochal moment during the troubles, pitting the Republican movement against an immovable British government under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher . Two years later, the Provisional IRA focused the world’s attention on the Maze Prison with Britain’s largest prison breakout. In an operation that would have been planned for months, using covert methods of communication with the IRA on the outside, including notes or ‘comms’ written on the back of cigarette papers, 38 prisoners escaped after hi-jacking the prison’s meals lorry. The break-out was chaotic, and, as in keeping with the macabre tone of Ulster’s history after 1966, it was violent. One prison officer was stabbed to death, another died of a heart attack and many were injured. In the ensuing pursuit, 19 prisoners were caught, but 21 had escaped, including some of the IRA’s leading commanders. For the IRA it was a victory: both operationally and in terms of propaganda, coming at a time when their campaign was running out of steam.
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