Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Prison bars Gerry Kelly from telling inmates about his IRA escape

Former Sinn Fein junior minister Gerry Kelly
Former Sinn Fein junior minister Gerry Kelly

Gerry Kelly has been barred from going into a Northern Ireland jail – to talk about his prison breakout.

The former Sinn Fein junior minister had been invited into Hydebank Wood to discuss his book on the 1983 Maze breakout which led to the death of a prison officer.

But Hydebank governor Paul Norbury then cancelled the event which had been organised at the young offenders' centre next Tuesday.

Mr Norbury had not been aware that the request on behalf of the SF MLA to attend a meeting of the book club had been agreed.

"It was acceded to without the knowledge of the governor," a Prison Service spokesman said yesterday.

"When he was made aware of it he took the decision that the event should not go ahead in a young offenders' centre."

Now hardline unionist Jim Allister is tabling an urgent oral question in the Assembly on Monday, although Speaker William Hay will have to allow it to go ahead.

This is the second time the North Belfast MLA has had to cancel an event over the book, which is entitled The Escape.

There was anger when it was revealed Mr Kelly was to attend a book-signing in Antrim close to where Army sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar were shot dead at Massereene barracks in 2009.

At the time Mr Kelly tweeted that he was changing the venue and time "so as not to feed the book-burning wing of unionism".

But no alternative will be organised for the Hydebank event, which caused anguish for some prison staff.

While welcoming the cancellation, Mr Allister said it was "absolutely outrageous" that it had been planned in the first place.

"When I first heard of the plan I frankly did not know whether to believe it. Young people who have already started out along the wrong road will hardly be encouraged to reform their ways by someone discussing a book in which he glamorises escaping from prison.

"What practical benefit did the prison authorities believe the inmates would gain from Kelly's visit? Tips on how to escape?

"Many prison officers will take grave offence at this, given that the escape in which Kelly was involved in resulted in a prison officer being shot in the head while another died of a heart attack."

The Traditional Unionist Voice leader added: "There are serious questions for the prison authorities and indeed the Justice Minister (David Ford) to answer in relation to how the possibility of such an event ever arose and I will be pressing minister Ford on the issue."

Responding to the furore, Mr Kelly said: "I had received an invitation from Hydebank to address its book club as a local author. I was happy to facilitate this request.

"Following the request being withdrawn I am equally relaxed about that decision."

It would not have been his first visit into Hydebank, however. When junior minister, along with the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson, he met criminal justice inspector Kit Chivers to discuss a report into the centre's treatment of juvenile prisoners.

A Prison Service source said: "He is no stranger to Hydebank and welcome at most times, but it was felt this event was not appropriate given the nature of the book and location."

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