Belfast Telegraph

Thatcher's shock at IRA jailbreak

Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher declared it was "even worse than we thought" after learning the staggering details behind the top-security Maze prison break-out in which 38 IRA inmates went on the run.

She penned her thoughts across the top of a secret government document which landed on her desk five days after the September 25 1983 mass escape from the Northern Ireland jail became the worst prison break-out in British history.

The Northern Ireland Office report, released by the National Archives, details how the escape from the H-Block (numbered as H7) unfolded and the Government's determination that the IRA should not be able to gain from the episode.

In the immediate aftermath, strongly-worded advice sent by telegram from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to its mission and dependent territories stressed: "You should take every opportunity to limit the propaganda benefit the IRA will reap from the outbreak ... The Government regard the outbreak most seriously."

The document also suggests "the Provisionals clearly regard the latest escape as a propaganda tonic for their flagging morale", adding that the "PIRA and their sympathisers overseas will be doing all in their power to reap as much propaganda benefit from the escape as possible."

One prison officer was killed and another was seriously injured. The prisoners used smuggled guns and knives to overpower staff before hijacking a food lorry which they used to drive to the main gate.

The paper restated the Government's public pronouncements that security would not be breached again.

Security forces mounted the biggest search operation Northern Ireland has ever seen within minutes of the escape from the prison near Lisburn. Ten prisoners were recaptured within the first few hours. By the time that Mrs Thatcher was sent the document 19 prisoners had been recaptured.

Northern Ireland Secretary James Prior, who had pledged the escapees would be "hunted down whether they are be in the north or the south of Ireland", had asked the Chief Inspector of Prisons Sir James Hennesssy to carry out an inquiry.

"It will be prompt, rigorous and searching," the document states. "Meanwhile you should restrict comment to the above while not commenting on the details of the outbreak or on speculation about lax security. The matter is in effect sub judice."

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