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1987 files: How recaptured Maze escapees, including Gerry Kelly, planned second breakout at trial

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 21/08/2015

Troops at the scene of Maze escape in 1983
Troops at the scene of Maze escape in 1983
A soldier vaults his way into a garden near the M1 as a large-scale search operation gets under way for the Maze escapees
The food lorry at the centre of the breakout

Prison officials had intelligence that the Maze escapees would make a second bid for freedom at their trial, newly declassified records have revealed.

Thirty-eight inmates fled the high-security jail in 1983 in the biggest breakout staged in the UK.

Nineteen were recaptured within a few days, but the rest got away.

The escapees included Gerry Kelly, now a Sinn Fein Assembly Member. He was recaptured in Amsterdam and extradited back to the UK.

The escapees went on trial in 1987.

The case, at Crumlin Road Courthouse in north Belfast, would take place amid a huge security operation.

A confidential memo written as the trial entered its final stages warned a second escape attempt was being planned.

"As this is likely to be the final phase of the trial the prisoners may well seek to make an escape attempt and there is some intelligence to that effect," it reported.

The document is part of a series of previously classified files released by the Public Record Office in Belfast today.

The Maze housed some of Northern Ireland's most notorious paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles. However, it became infamous after the mass breakout in September 1983.

The prisoners used smuggled guns and knives to overpower staff before hijacking a lorry.

One prison officer, James Ferris, died after being stabbed, while another was seriously injured.

The biggest search operation ever seen in Northern Ireland was mounted within minutes of the breakout, and half of the prisoners were caught.

Security was high for the recaptured escapees' trial.

A memo from a security briefing referred to an RUC intelligence report which noted how the IRA appeared to have identified two escape options.

The memo does not state what these were, but warned that Crumlin Road Courthouse was vulnerable.

The Army and RUC were asked to increase their patrols near the courthouse and Crumlin Road Gaol, where the prisoners were held during the trial.

Special vigilance was exercised by police inside the courthouse searching visitors, while inmates were strip-searched each day.

It was suggested that the 16 escapees on trial be handcuffed throughout the case, but this was vetoed by Lord Chief Justice Sir Robert Lowry. As the trial entered its final phase, a second memo was drafted by JB Semple, the deputy director of prison security.

Transporting prisoners from the Maze to Crumlin Road Courthouse each day had been viewed as a security risk, he noted.

Therefore, they were held at the adjacent prison and moved to the courthouse via the secure tunnel under the Crumlin Road.

Mr Semple refers to intelligence which suggests an escape attempt was likely.

"Consequently I take the view that returning them (other than Mr Kelly and one other) to HMP Maze at weekends would be a sensible additional precaution, partly because the Maze is inherently more secure than Belfast and partly to make the planning of an escape more difficult."

Papers from the year of the escape were released in 2013.

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