British were forced to defend Maze against Soviet 'rights violations' queries
Russia raised serious concerns about alleged human rights violations at the Maze prison, according to confidential State papers released by the Public Records Office.
The British were forced to defend the paramilitary prison regime after Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze handed over a list of cases which had attracted interest from his country's top brass.
The status of 400 political prisoners was highlighted, but eight individuals serving life sentences for murder or attempted murder were singled out for special mention, the top secret papers have revealed.
They included John Anthony McCooey who was jailed for the attack at Tullyvallon Orange Hall in September 1976 in which five Orangemen were killed; Christopher Whelan who was sentenced to life for the attempted murder of a reserve policeman in Londonderry in November the same year; and Thomas McGrath who was convicted of shooting an Ulster Defence Regiment soldier and his son in October 1976 and for his part in the murder of two police officers.
In a briefing paper for officials, Douglas Hurd, a former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, offered advice on how to handle the sensitive enquiry.
He said: "We have judged it prudent not to refer to explicitly to these convictions in our response to the Russians to avoid being drawn into a sterile argument about whether these offences are "political" in nature.
"The point is that the eight individuals are genuine villains whose main crimes are murder."
Even though the British dismissed the Russian concerns as "propaganda", they did not want any details released to the media, the files said.
They also suggested that Russia get its own house in order.
The papers added: " We need to show the Russians that we have taken their expression of concern about Northern Ireland seriously, and examined the list carefully.
"This reminds the Russians that we expect no less careful response to our own representations about human rights and individual cases.
"At the same time we need to make very clear to the Soviet authorities that the particular cases they have raised bear absolutely no comparison with the refuseniks, religious believers, psychiatric prisoners or others on our own list.
"They should be left in do doubt that we consider Shevardnadze remarks a pretty blatant propaganda ploy."
In the end, a telegram dated March 1988 was sent to Moscow.
It stated that the Northern Ireland prison system was "humane and forward looking" and the Maze, which was only recently built, had among the most modern facilities in Europe.
Shevardnadze, who died last summer at the age of 86, was one of the key figures in Mikhail Gorbachev's government. He was heralded with steering the Soviet Union in from the cold, establishing good working relationships with the US and its western allies during his five and a half years as foreign minister from 1985.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union he became president of his native Georgia but was forced to stand down in 2003 after the so-called "rose revolution" street protests over allegations of electoral corruption.