seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Maze Prison Escape

The Maze Prison escape, known to Irish republicans as the Great Escape, takes place on September 25, 1983 in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. HM Prison Maze, also known as Long Kesh, is a maximum security prison considered to be one of the most escape-proof prisons in Europe, and holds prisoners suspected of taking part in armed paramilitary campaigns during the Troubles. In the biggest prison escape in UK history, 38 Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners escaped from H-Block 7 (H7) of the prison. One prison officer dies of a heart attack during the escape and twenty others are injured, including two who are shot with guns that had been smuggled into the prison. The escape is a propaganda coup for the IRA, and a British government minister faces calls to resign. The official inquiry into the escape places most of the blame onto prison staff, who in turn blame the escape on political interference in the running of the prison.

IRA volunteers regard themselves as prisoners of war with a duty to escape. During the Troubles, Irish republican prisoners escape from custody en masse on several occasions between 1971 and 1981.

Prisoners had been planning the 1983 escape for several months. Bobby Storey and Gerry Kelly start working as orderlies in H7, which allows them to identify weaknesses in the security systems. Six handguns are also smuggled into the prison. Shortly after 2:30 PM on September 25, prisoners seize control of H7 by simultaneously taking the prison officers hostage at gunpoint in order to prevent them from triggering an alarm. One officer is stabbed with a craft knife, and another is knocked down by a blow to the back of the head. One officer who attempts to prevent the escape is shot in the head by Gerry Kelly, but survives. By 2:50 PM the prisoners are in control of H7 without an alarm being raised. A dozen prisoners also take uniforms from the officers, and the officers are forced to hand over their car keys and details of where their cars are, for possible later use during the escape. A rearguard is left behind to watch over hostages and keep the alarm from being raised until they believe the escapees are clear of the prison, at which time they return to their cells. At 3:25 PM, a lorry delivering food supplies arrives at the entrance to H7, whereupon Brendan McFarlane and other prisoners take the occupants hostage at gunpoint and move them inside H7. The lorry driver is told the lorry is being used in the escape, and he is instructed what route to take and how to react if challenged.

At 3:50 PM the prisoners leave H7, and the driver and a prison orderly are taken back to the lorry. Thirty-seven prisoners climb into the back of the lorry, while Gerry Kelly lay on the floor of the cab with a gun pointed at the driver, who is also told the cab has been booby trapped with a hand grenade. At nearly 4:00 PM the lorry drives toward the main gate of the prison, where the prisoners intend to take over the gatehouse. Ten prisoners dressed in guards’ uniforms and armed with guns and chisels dismount from the lorry and enter the gatehouse, where they take the officers hostage.

At 4:05 PM the officers begin to resist, and an officer presses an alarm button. When other staff respond via an intercom, a senior officer says while being held at gunpoint that the alarm had been triggered accidentally. By this time the prisoners are struggling to maintain control in the gatehouse due to the number of hostages. Officers arriving for work are entering the gatehouse from outside the prison, and each is ordered at gunpoint to join the other hostages. Officer James Ferris runs from the gatehouse toward the pedestrian gate attempting to raise the alarm, pursued by Dermot Finucane. Ferris had already been stabbed three times in the chest, and before he can raise the alarm he collapses.

Finucane continues to the pedestrian gate where he stabs the officer controlling the gate, and two officers who had just entered the prison. This incident is seen by a soldier on duty in a watchtower, who reports to the British Army operations room that he has seen prison officers fighting. The operations room telephones the prison’s Emergency Control Room (ECR), which replies that everything is all right and that an alarm had been accidentally triggered earlier.

At 4:12 PM the alarm is raised when an officer in the gatehouse pushes the prisoner holding him hostage out of the room and telephones the ECR. However, this is not done soon enough to prevent the escape. After several attempts the prisoners open the main gate, and are waiting for the prisoners still in the gatehouse to rejoin them in the lorry. At this time two prison officers block the exit with their cars, forcing the prisoners to abandon the lorry and make their way to the outer fence which is 25 yards away.

Four prisoners attack one of the officers and hijack his car, which they drive toward the external gate. They crash into another car near the gate and abandon the car. Two escape through the gate, one is captured exiting the car, and another is captured after being chased by a soldier. At the main gate, a prison officer is shot in the leg while chasing the only two prisoners who have not yet reached the outer fence. The prisoner who fires the shot is captured after being shot and wounded by a soldier in a watch tower, and the other prisoner is captured after falling. The other prisoners escape over the fence, and by 4:18 PM the main gate is closed and the prison secured, after 35 prisoners had breached the prison perimeter. The escape is the biggest in British history, and the biggest in Europe since World War II.

Outside the prison the IRA has planned a logistical support operation involving 100 armed members, but due to a miscalculation of five minutes, the prisoners find no transport waiting for them and are forced to flee across fields or hijack vehicles. The British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary immediately activate a contingency plan and by 4:25 PM a cordon of vehicle checkpoints are in place around the prison, and others are later in place in strategic positions across Northern Ireland, resulting in the recapture of one prisoner at 11:00 PM. Twenty prison officers are injured during the escape, thirteen are kicked and beaten, four stabbed, and two shot. One prison officer, James Ferris, who had been stabbed, dies after suffering a heart attack during the escape.

The escape is a propaganda coup and morale boost for the IRA, with Irish republicans dubbing it the “Great Escape.” Leading unionist politician Ian Paisley calls on Nicholas Scott, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to resign. The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher makes a statement in Ottawa during a visit to Canada, saying “It is the gravest [breakout] in our present history, and there must be a very deep inquiry.” The day after the escape, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Prior announces an inquiry to be headed by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, James Hennessy. The Hennessy Report is published on January 26, 1984 placing most of the blame for the escape on prison staff, and making a series of recommendations to improve security at the prison. The report also places blame with the designers of the prison, the Northern Ireland Office and successive prison governors who had failed to improve security. Prior announces that the prison’s governor has resigned, and that there will be no ministerial resignations as a result of the report’s findings. Four days after the Hennessy Report is published, the Minister for Prisons Nicholas Scott dismisses allegations from the Prison Governors Association and the Prison Officers Association that the escape is due to political interference in the running of the prison.

Fifteen escapees are captured on the day, including four who are discovered hiding underwater in a river near the prison using reeds to breathe. Four more escapees are captured over the next two days, including Hugh Corey and Patrick McIntyre who are captured following a two-hour siege at an isolated farmhouse. Out of the remaining 19 escapees, 18 end up in the republican stronghold of South Armagh where two members of the IRA’s South Armagh Brigade are in charge of transporting them to safehouses, and given the option of either returning to active service in the IRA’s armed campaign or a job and new identity in the United States.

On October 25, 1984, nineteen prisoners appear in court on charges relating to the death of prison officer James Ferris, sixteen charged with his murder. A pathologist determines that the stab wounds Ferris suffered would not have killed a healthy man. The judge acquits all sixteen as he cannot correlate the stabbing to the heart attack.


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Dissolution of the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention

In the House of Commons of the United Kingdom on March 5, 1976, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Merlyn Rees announces the dissolution of the short lived Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention (NICC).

The Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention is an elected body set up in 1975 by the United Kingdom Labour government of Harold Wilson as an attempt to deal with constitutional issues surrounding the status of Northern Ireland.

The idea for a constitutional convention is first mooted by the Northern Ireland Office in its white paper The Northern Ireland Constitution, published on July 4, 1974. The paper lays out plans for elections to a body which would seek agreement on a political settlement for Northern Ireland. The proposals become law with the enactment of the Northern Ireland Act 1974 later that month. With Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland Robert Lowry appointed to chair the new body, elections are announced for May 1, 1975.

The elections are held for the 78-member body using the single transferable vote system of proportional representation in each of Northern Ireland’s twelve Westminster constituencies. Initially the body is intended to be purely consultative, although it is hoped that executive and legislative functions can be devolved to the NICC once a cross-community agreement has been reached. Unionists opposed to the NICC once again band together under the umbrella of the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) and this coalition proves the most successful, taking 46 seats.

A number of leading Northern Ireland politicians are elected to the NICC, increasing hope that the body might achieve some of its aims. Also elected are some younger figures who go on to become leading figures in the future of Northern Ireland politics.

The elections leave the body fundamentally weakened from its inception as an overall majority has been obtained by those Unionists who oppose power sharing as a concept. As a result, the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention Report published on November 20, 1975 recommends only a return to majority rule as had previously existed under the old Parliament of Northern Ireland government. As such a solution is completely unacceptable to the nationalist parties, the NICC is placed on hiatus.

Hoping to gain something from the exercise, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Merlyn Rees announces that the NICC would be reconvened on February 3, 1976. However, a series of meetings held between the UUUC and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) fail to reach any agreement about SDLP participation in government, and so the reconvened NICC once again fails to achieve a solution with cross-community support. As a result, Rees announces the dissolution of the body on March 5, 1976 and Northern Ireland remains under direct rule.

On the face of it, the NICC is a total failure as it does not achieve its aims of agreement between the two sides or of introducing ‘rolling devolution’ (gradual introduction of devolution as and when the parties involved see fit to accept it). Nevertheless, coming as it does not long after the Conservative-sponsored Sunningdale Agreement, the NICC indicates that no British government will be prepared to re-introduce majority rule in Northern Ireland. During the debates William Craig accepts the possibility of power-sharing with the SDLP, a move that splits the UUUC and precipitates the eventual collapse of the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party (VUPP).

The idea of electing a consultative body to thrash out a deal for devolution is also retained and in 1996 it is revived when the Northern Ireland Forum is elected on largely the same lines and with the same overall purpose. The Forum forms part of a process that leads to the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Assembly.


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Assassination of Norman and James Stronge

Sir Charles Norman Lockhart Stronge and his son James, both former Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Members of Parliament, are assassinated by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) at their home, Tynan Abbey, on January 21, 1981. The home is then burned to the ground.

Before his involvement in politics Stronge fights in World War I as a junior officer in the British Army. He fights in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and is awarded the Military Cross. His positions after the war include Speaker of the House of Commons of Northern Ireland for twenty-three years.

Stronge (86) and his son, James (48), are watching television in the library of Tynan Abbey when members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, armed with machine guns, use grenades to break down the locked heavy doors to the home.

The Stronge family home is then burned to the ground as a result of two bomb explosions. On seeing the explosions at the house, as well as a flare Stronge lit in an attempt to alert the authorities, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and British Army troops arrive at the scene and establish a roadblock at the gate lodge. They encounter at least eight fleeing gunmen. A twenty-minute gunfight ensues in which at least two hundred shots are fired. There are no casualties among the security forces but the gunmen escape. The bodies of the father and son are later discovered in the library of their burning home, each with gunshot wounds in the head. It is not known who died first, Norman or James. Under the legal fiction known as the doctrine of survival, James is still listed as succeeding to the baronetcy.

The village of Tynan is crowded for the joint funeral of Stronge and his son. Mourners come from throughout the province and from England, including lords, politicians, policemen, judges and church leaders. The coffin is carried by the 5th Battalion the Royal Irish Rangers, the successors to his old regiment. The sword and cap of the Lord Lieutenant of Tyrone, Major John Hamilton-Stubber, are placed on his coffin in lieu of his own, which had been destroyed with his other possessions in the fire. During the service, a telegram sent from Queen Elizabeth II to one of Sir Norman’s daughters, is read. After the service, the chief mourners move out into the churchyard where the “Last Post” is sounded and a Royal British Legion farewell is given. The two coffins are laid in the family plot, where Lady Stronge, Sir Norman’s wife and mother of James, was buried a year previously.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, is informed by friends of the Stronge family that he would not be welcome at the funeral because of government policy on Irish border security. Atkins leaves the Northern Ireland Office later that year, to be replaced by Jim Prior. Stronge is commemorated with a tablet in the Northern Ireland Assembly Chamber in Parliament Buildings on the Stormont Estate.

The IRA releases a statement in Belfast, quoted in The Times, claiming that “This deliberate attack on the symbols of hated unionism was a direct reprisal for a whole series of loyalist assassinations and murder attacks on nationalist peoples and nationalist activities.” This follows the loyalist attempted murder of Bernadette McAliskey and her husband Michael McAliskey on January 16, and the loyalist assassinations of four republican activists (Miriam Daly, John Turnley, Noel Lyttle and Ronnie Bunting) which had taken place since May 1980.

The killings are referred to as murder by multiple media sources including The Daily Telegraph, The Scotsman, The New York Times and Time magazine, by the Reverend Ian Paisley in the House of Commons and by Alec Cooke, Baron Cooke of Islandreagh in the House of Lords.

Stronge is described at the time of his death by Social Democratic and Labour Party politician Austin Currie as having been “even at 86 years of age … still incomparably more of a man than the cowardly dregs of humanity who ended his life in this barbaric way.”

The ruins of Tynan Abbey are demolished in 1998, having stood for 249 years.


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Gerry Adams & David Trimble Meet at Stormont

On November 4, 2002, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams meet face-to-face for the first time since the suspension of Northern Ireland‘s power-sharing government in an attempt to break the deadlock in the peace process. They meet at Stormont as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy, continues his round of meetings with the political parties in an attempt to find a way to end the deadlock.

The province’s institutions are suspended on October 14 following a row over allegations of Irish Republican Army (IRA) activity, including alleged spying within the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).

Speaking after a 40-minute meeting with Trimble, Adams says they had had a “useful exchange of views.” But he adds, as expected, “there were very few conclusions in terms of the big picture….I asked Mr. Trimble how he thought things could be sorted out and Mr. Trimble had no particular suggestion to offer. But it was a good meeting.”

The Sinn Féin president says he had suggested to Trimble that each leader could address the executive of the opposite’s party. “He declined. But I hope he will think about the suggestion.”

Trimble says no significant developments came out of the meeting. He adds that the onus is on the republican movement to move the process forward. He dismisses Adams’s suggestion that they should address each others’ parties as a “stunt.”

Elsewhere on this date, Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Cowen and Northern Secretary Paul Murphy also hold talks with a Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) delegation in Dublin. Among the items on the agenda are how to restore the North’s devolved political institutions and whether or not the next Northern Ireland Assembly elections will be held as planned the following May.

Adams leaves for Washington, D.C. the following day, where he is expected to brief President George W. Bush‘s Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, Richard N. Haass. He also plans to visit New York, New Jersey and Canada for fund-raising events during his six day trip.

(From: “Trimble Adams meeting ‘useful'”, BBC News, news.bbc.co.uk, November 5, 2002)


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Harland & Wolff Cranes Listed as Historic Monuments

samson-and-goliathSamson and Goliath, the twin shipbuilding gantry cranes situated in the shipyard of Harland & Wolff at Queen’s Island, Belfast, are listed on October 9, 2003, as historic monuments to ensure their preservation. The cranes, which are named after the Biblical figures Samson and Goliath, dominate the Belfast skyline and are landmark structures of the city.

The cranes are constructed by the German engineering firm Krupp, with Goliath being completed in 1969 and Samson in 1974. Goliath, the smaller of the cranes, stands 315 feet tall, while Samson stands 348 feet in height. Goliath sits slightly further inland closer to Belfast City. At the time Harland & Wolff is one of the largest shipbuilders in the world. The announcement that they are to be built is an important event at the time.

Each crane has a span of 459 feet and can lift loads of up to 840 tonnes to a height of 230 feet, making a combined lifting capacity of over 1,600 tonnes, one of the largest in the world. Prior to commissioning, the cranes are tested up to 1,000 tonnes, which bends the gantry downwards by over 12 inches. The dry dock at the base of the cranes is the largest in the world measuring 1,824 feet × 305 feet.

At its height, Harland & Wolff boasts 35,000 employees and a healthy order book, but in the years following the construction of the cranes, the workforce and business declines. The last ship to be launched at the yard to date is a roll-on/roll-off ferry in March 2003. Since then the yard has restructured itself to focus less on shipbuilding and more on design and structural engineering, as well as ship repair, offshore construction projects and competing for other projects to do with metal engineering and construction. Initially there is concern that the now largely redundant cranes would be demolished. However, on October 9, 2003 they are scheduled as historic monuments under Article 3 of the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.

Northern Ireland Office Minister of the time Angela Smith states, “These cranes are an essential part of our city, our roots and our culture.” The cranes are not, technically, “listed buildings,” but are recognised by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency as buildings of “architectural or historic interest.”

Shipbuilding has ceased in Belfast, but the cranes are retained as part of the existing dry dock facility within the restructured shipyard, situated adjacent to the Titanic Quarter, a business, light industrial, leisure, and residential development on land now surplus to the heavy industrial requirements of the shipyard on Queen’s Island. They are kept in working order and used for heavy lifting by Harland & Wolff in its other activities.