Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Maze workmen unearth secret escape tunnel

Escape diggings date back to 1970s

Demolition of the Maze prison under way this week
Demolition of the Maze prison under way this week

Workers demolishing the Maze Prison have turned up a long-forgotten escape tunnel. The 60-ft long tunnel is thought to have been abandoned more than 30 years ago, before its paramilitary diggers could bust out.

They may even have had to drop their breakout bid because prison chiefs started building the infamous H-blocks over their planned exit.

Workers came across the tunnel, dug in the direction of where the infamous H-Blocks were built, in one of the older parts of the site.

The team first found tonnes of dirt from the tunnel hidden in bags and stuffed into the roofs of Nissen huts that housed internees and sentenced prisoners. Then their digger fell into the tunnel itself.

The tunnel has now been filled in for safety reasons. Because the bags of dirt were previously undiscovered and the tunnel had not been filled in while the jail was open, it was apparently never found by prison chiefs.

The carefully hidden dirt was the first clue and the subsequent collapse confirmed it: as the concrete walls and decaying cell blocks are being dismantled, the Maze is finally giving up some of its secrets.

Workmen demolishing the last traces of the first prison compound, where hundreds of republicans and loyalists were interned or jailed in the Seventies, have found a long-forgotten escape tunnel.

The tunnel, which ran for about 60 feet from the Nissen huts of the old Long Kesh camp towards the old perimeter fence, appears to have lain undiscovered for three decades.

It was abandoned before it was completed - possibly because the inmates found that their planned exit was smack in the middle of the site where H-blocks were being built for the high security prison that opened in 1976.

While the IRA was responsible for many attempts to tunnel out of the jail, several prison sources said the location of the tunnel suggests this may have been a UVF escape bid.

The demolition crew who took down the Nissen huts at the end of last year figured they were in the vicinity of an old tunnel when they found bags of dirt shoved below the corrugated iron used for the curved roofs of the huts.

"We had no trouble working out what they were from," said Desmond Rodgers, the foreman from contractors John McQuillan and Sons.

The dirt had been placed in small bags sewn from blankets and pillow cases, and shoved into the gaps between the outer skin of the roof and the inner ceiling of several Nissen huts. The outer walls of toilet blocks had also been filled with bags of dirt.

So much dirt was packed into the roofs that the demolition crew was surprised they hadn't collapsed under the weight.

"There was tons of it," said Gavin Smyth, who operates one of the diggers.

"The dirt was all in bags in the roof, like sugar bags, made from blankets and pillow cases."

The crew soon found where the dirt had come from - Gavin's digger fell into the tunnel.

"It was half filled with water," said Desmond Rodgers.

"There was a big roll of cable in there as well," said Sammy McVeigh. "It was used, so they must have stripped it from somewhere else to use it for lights."

The crew filled in the remains of the tunnel for safety reasons, estimating it ran about 60 feet from the huts before its end.

A Prison Service report on the last tunnel found in the Maze - a 1997 attempt by the IRA - said that "tunnelling attempts were not uncommon" in the old compound. An IRA internee, Hugh Coney, was shot dead by soldiers on November 6, 1974, when he and other republican inmates nearly escaped through a 134-foot tunnel.

The recently discovered tunnel was almost certainly dug after October 1974, when a fire destroyed many of the Nissen huts. The bags of dirt would have been exposed.

But it was probably abandoned before March 1976, when the first H-blocks opened, suggesting it may have been built in 1975.

"This discovery clearly relates to a period during our Troubles past and we sincerely hope these days are consigned to history," a Prison Service spokesman said yesterday.

Demolition of the Maze has reached the prison's perimeter wall, but the H-blocks, which housed thousands of paramilitary prisoners for 25 years, have not yet been taken down.

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