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The untold story of the 1983 Maze prison breakout

In September 1983, 38 Provisional IRA inmates escaped from the top-security Maze Prison — the biggest jailbreak in Europe since the Second World War. One prison officer was shot in the head, but survived; a second was stabbed three times in the chest and died. In his sensational new book about the Maze, Tom Murtagh,  a former deputy governor of the jail, reveals the never-before-told story of the mass break-out.

The Maze prison
The Maze prison
The manhunt that ensued
Stabbed prison officer James Ferris died
Prisoner Gerry Kelly escaped
The funeral of officer James Ferris

September 25, 1983 began as a normal Sunday morning in H-Block 7. The block was occupied exclusively by Provisional IRA prisoners. Only workers on essential domestic duties, such as the kitchen and block orderlies, were required to work. Most of the 125 prisoners were engaged in recreational activities on association.

A full complement of staff totalling 24 was on duty in the block; 16 of them (four to each wing of the H-Block) were detailed to directly supervise prisoners on their wings; six officers were deployed to fixed posts on or around The Circle (the area across the middle of the shape of the ‘H’), controlling movement around the block. Two senior grades were on duty, one of whom was acting-up to the higher principal prison officer (PPO) rank and in overall charge.

Prison officers were always unarmed when on duty in the prison and the only piece of defensive equipment permitted on their person was a standard-issue stave (baton). This should be borne in mind at all times when reading this narrative.

Most of the officers on duty were regular H7 staff, but one officer was working in H7 for the first time in many months. He told this author that he was alarmed at the changes he observed, especially the number of higher-ranking Provisional IRA prisoners working as orderlies and moving around in The Circle area.

When he expressed his concerns to a colleague, he was informed that this was now normal practice, as the nature of the staff-prisoner relationship had changed. He recalled that the behaviour of both staff and prisoners toward each other was friendly and, in most cases, they were on first-name terms.

The morning of Sunday, September 25 was uneventful, with no indication of what was to follow.

At 14.30 hours, a full complement of staff was still on duty and one hospital officer was in the medical room. Shortly after 14.30, five of the block orderlies — all leading members of the Provisional IRA — were admitted into The Circle on the pretext that they were carrying out their normal duties.

These prisoners were Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, Brendan Mead, Robert ‘Bobby’ Storey, Gerry Kelly and Tony McAllister. Each was serving a long sentence for serious terrorist offences. McFarlane, Mead and McAllister were serving life sentences for murder. Kelly was serving two life sentences for causing explosions in London, resulting in serious injury to approximately 200 innocent people. Storey was serving 18 years for possessing firearms and ammunition.

Shortly after their arrival in The Circle, McFarlane was allowed out through the main entrance into the front yard of the block, where the waste bins were located. To regular block staff, this was normal practice for him, as the orderly. The others placed themselves within line of sight of each other and in positions that enabled them to shadow each member of staff on duty in The Circle. Within a minute or so, McFarlane returned into the secure entrance lobby of the block.

When they were all in position, Mead approached senior prison officer (SPO) Smiley (second-in-charge), who was standing on The Circle, and asked if he could discuss a personal problem with him in private. The SPO agreed and took him into the PPO’s office, where acting PPO George was working at his desk.

When they entered the office, Mead closed the door. At this stage, Kelly was standing close to the entrance to the block communication room. This was intended to be a secure, isolated unit, housing direct-line communications with the emergency control room (ECR) through its secure radio network, direct telephone line and 'panic alarm' system. It was also the depository for all security keys in the block. Access to this room was from The Circle.

A solid door, fitted with a high-security lock, secured the room, which was further protected by a metal grill gate immediately outside the door. But, because of a defect in the design of the H-Blocks, there was no effective ventilation in these communication rooms and it was not uncommon for the officers working in them to open the solid door and rely on the grill gate to secure the room.

This design fault was identified to the appropriate headquarters department shortly after the blocks were opened in the mid-1970s, but nothing was done to correct the problem.

Shortly after entering the PPO's office, Mead drew a firearm, threatening both officers and holding them at bay. SPO Smiley pushed the gun away; in response, Mead struck him on the jaw and threatened to shoot PPO George. Simultaneously, McFarlane drew a firearm and subdued the officer manning the lobby gate and took his keys. The solid door to the communications room was already opened and Kelly pointed a gun through the metal grill gate at the officer on duty, John 'Grizzly' Adams, ordering him to open the gate and lie down on the ground. At the same time, Storey and McAllister entered the staff 'tea room', waving a firearm and shouting: "Hit the deck. Hit the deck. If anyone moves, they are dead."

The officers at the lobby gate and on The Circle, together with two officers who, unknown to the prisoners, were in the toilets, were herded into the tea room and ordered to lie on the floor with the others. Initially, the prisoners were not aware of the presence of a hospital officer in the medical room and, when he was discovered, Storey threatened to shoot him, then made him crawl on his stomach across The Circle to the tea room.

As prisoners were now permitted inter-wing movement, it was possible for individual prisoners to position themselves in the area between wings on each side of the block, giving them line of sight to The Circle. This became crucial to the prisoners' escape plan and lookouts were in these positions. When the takeover of The Circle was complete, the prisoners who had been acting as lookouts returned to their respective wings. As soon as they entered them, they immediately attacked and overcame the officer who admitted them.

In A and B wings, one of the returning lookouts produced a gun and the other produced a screwdriver to threaten and subdue the officers. On C wing, an officer was clubbed down with a hammer blow to the back of the head and in D wing, an officer was stabbed with a knife permitted for handicraft work. This signalled an attack on the remaining wing staff, who were outnumbered by at least 25 to four and were overcome within minutes.

In the communication room, Officer Adams was still lying face down on the floor with Kelly standing close by in the doorway. He noticed that Kelly had been distracted and made a brief effort to raise the alarm. The Hennessy Report describes what is alleged to have happened (in particular at Chapter 2.05) as follows:

"Officer (Adams) was another who tried to frustrate the takeover. Lying on the floor of the communications room, he surreptitiously raised himself up in an attempt to reach his stave when he thought (Gerry) Kelly's attention had been diverted. Before he could do so, Kelly fired two shots at him: he collapsed on the floor with a bullet through the head."

Some of the officers held captive in The Circle area allege that, by this stage, Storey seemed completely out-of-control and, from what they could overhear, McFarlane seemed to be restraining either him, or Kelly, from killing unarmed officers. It is impossible to validate the accuracy of this, as it is based entirely on what they overheard happening on The Circle.

However, at this stage, it was by no means certain that John Adams had not already been killed and it is understandable that officers might place the worst possible interpretation on what they could hear, especially as most staff seemed to view Kelly as a cold individual. One officer, who knew him well, said that, in his opinion, he was "a nasty piece of work, whose true nature is nothing like the persona he presents to the public today". Storey, on the other hand, was viewed by many staff as a bullyboy who, in an excited state, could be unpredictable. When all the staff had been subdued, the prisoners moved them into the games rooms. There, they were stripped of their uniforms; what possessions they had on their person were taken from them; they were bound and hooded with pillowcases; separated and roughly interrogated by the prisoners. Car keys were taken and officers were intimidated into providing details of their personal vehicles and where they were in the car park.

All the officers were traumatised and some were having difficulty breathing with the pillowcases over their heads. To the credit of some prisoners, they did try to relieve their difficulty, but the hoods remained on. The hospital officer was then taken at gunpoint to treat John Adams, who was now conscious and had been moved to the staff toilets. The prisoners ordered another officer to replace him in the communication room where he, too, was held at gunpoint and told to answer any telephone, or radio, calls as if all was normal.

Acting PPO George was made, at gunpoint, to sit in his office, facing the wall, with similar instructions. Kelly's reckless action in allegedly shooting John Adams could have undermined the escape plan, but the prisoners were lucky that the shots were not heard outside the block and the officer manning the gate at the entrance to the block compound had no inkling of what was happening inside.

When the prisoners (some now dressed in prison officers' uniforms) had control inside the block, McFarlane and two accomplices let themselves out and approached the officer on duty at the compound gates, seeking access for the orderly to clean the area. This was a normal part of McFarlane's duties. But, when the officer opened the gate, McFarlane produced a gun. The officer's keys were taken from him and he was escorted into the block where he, too, was stripped and bound.

The prisoners were now in complete control of the whole block area. Twelve of them put on prison officers' uniforms and two took up post at the block entrance gate to await the arrival of the kitchen lorry that, as part of their plan, they intended to commandeer.

Once the prisoners reached the main gate of the prison, the officer on duty at the external pedestrian gate remained unaware of what was happening just yards away in the gate lodge and was admitting staff returning from meal breaks; they, in turn, were being taken hostage by the armed prisoners. Officer Jim Ferris, one of the regular gate staff, was being held at gunpoint in the gate lodge. Through a window, he noticed what was happening at the external pedestrian gate and slowly edged himself toward an exit door leading to it. He then ran through the door toward the gate officer, shouting to him to secure it and raise the alarm.

A Provisional IRA prisoner quickly gave chase and, when he caught up with Jim Ferris, he stabbed him three times in the chest, then continued towards the gate and stabbed the gate officer and two officers whom he had just admitted. The officers who witnessed this incident all allege that the perpetrator of these stabbings was Dermot Finucane, brother of the late solicitor, Pat Finucane.

The Hennessy Report glosses over the whole of this in the following terms (Chapter 2.19), but mentions the alleged stabbing of the two officers:

"At about this time, Officer Ferris, chased by (Dermot) Finucane, ran from the gate lodge shouting to the officer at the pedestrian gate to secure it and sound the alarm. He had been stabbed three times in the chest (the report does not say by who). Before he was able to reach the gate, he collapsed and later died. Finucane continued on to the pedestrian gate where he stabbed two officers who had just entered the prison... the officer on gate duty had no time to sound the alarm or secure the gate before he too was stabbed."

Finucane has never been charged with, or convicted of, any alleged, or suspected, offences and, as noted later, the courts in the Republic refused an application for his extradition back to Northern Ireland.

Of the prison officers on duty that day, who encountered the IRA escapees, one was shot in the head and was in a critical condition; another in the leg, suffering serious injury; four were stabbed; and around 39 were kicked and beaten, in most cases while they were being held at gunpoint.

James Ferris died within an hour of the assault on him. A further five officers were admitted to hospital. All officers involved were aware of the extremely volatile and violent nature of their attackers and this added to the stress of the violence directed at them.

Most suffered serious psychological damage and some would suffer the effects for the rest of their lives. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, 42 were certified by doctors as unfit to work, due to nervous disorders linked to the violence they had suffered.

In all, 38 prisoners managed to get through the main gate of the prison. The Army and the police had pre-existing contingency plans for various possible scenarios relating to the Maze, including an escape, and these were immediately implemented.

Cordons and vehicle checkpoints were set up on all roads leading from the prison area by 4.25pm. In a follow-up search of the immediate area, prison officers, assisted by one police officer and one soldier (both of whom were armed), found four escapees, including Robert Storey, hiding in the water under a bank of the River Lagan (about half-a-mile from the prison). They were detained without incident and returned to the prison.

Nineteen of the 38 prisoners who left H7 were recaptured within 24 hours and most of them were returned to their original cells in that block. One of them (H Murray) had been shot by a soldier and was admitted to an outside hospital for treatment. The others made good their escape to the Irish Republic.

Most of them returned to criminal activities with the Provisional IRA. Of those, Kieran Fleming drowned while attempting to escape from the security forces. Seamus McElwaine and Padraig McKearney were killed in separate clashes with members of the security forces. Gerard McDonald was recaptured in Glasgow in 1985 with a group of Provisional IRA members that included Brighton bomber Patrick Magee. Gerry Kelly and Brendan McFarlane were arrested in Holland in 1986 and returned to their cells in H7 in the Maze. Robert Russell and Paul Kane were extradited from the Irish Republic in 1988-1989 and James Smyth was extradited from the USA in 1996.

In a bizarre decision by the Supreme Court in the Irish Republic that insulted the professionalism of prison officers in Northern Ireland, extradition requests were rejected in respect of Dermot Finucane (as already mentioned) and James Pius Clarke, because they "would be probable targets for ill-treatment by prison staff if returned to Northern Ireland".

An extradition request in respect of Tony Kelly was also rejected on purely political grounds and long-running extradition proceedings in respect of Kevin Barry Art, Pol Brennan and Terrence Kirby in the USA were withdrawn after the Good Friday Agreement.

Though these escapees were not extradited, they seemingly remain liable to prosecution if ever they return to the UK (or, possibly, if they travel to other countries with extradition arrangements with the UK).

Extracted from The Maze Prison: A Hidden Story of Chaos, Anarchy and Politics by Tom Murtagh, published by Waterside Press, priced £40 in paperback. To buy this title with a special 25% launch discount and free UK delivery, go to

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