25 September 1983: 38 IRA prisoners escaped from Long Kesh aka H.M. Prison the Maze on this day. In a meticulously planned operation a selected number of men seized their wing from the Prison Officers [‘screws’] set to watch over them and made a dash for Freedom.
For months before the prisoners had done everything to put the screws at ease - they even volunteered for prison work and engaged their captors in social conversation. Small arms were smuggled into the wing and hidden away. Only a certain number of men were in on the act and were sworn to secrecy. That bond held and nothing leaked - the prison officers were caught completely off guard.
At 2:15pm that day, three prisoners, carrying concealed pistols fitted with silencers and which had been smuggled into the prison, moved into the central administration area of H-Block 7 on the pretext of cleaning out a store. They were joined by others and secured the area. The prison officers were made to strip and their captors donned their uniforms.
The escapees had studied the routine of the prison for months and knew the timetable for the delivery of food to their Block. A food lorry did a daily run to Long Kesh every day at roughly the same time. When it arrived it was hijacked. At this point a prison officer was stabbed to death.
‘The food lorry was then driven through a series of security gates in full view of prison guards and British Army watchtowers...The lorry arrived at a first ‘tally hut’, where the plan was to take control, arrest all the Screws, leave prisoners in charge and drive the lorry on to the front gate ‘tally hut’ and then out of the prison to freedom. However, there was a larger number of Screws than anticipated at the first hut, where others were coming on and off duty; the escapers could not control them all and the alarm was raised.’
Mícheál Mac Donncha An Phoblacht 25 September 2017
At this stage the prisoners decided to just run for it out through the front gate and across the fields...Amazingly despite the uproar within the prison as the Alarm was raised 19 of them got clean away.
The prison break was a huge propaganda victory for the IRA as the place was supposed to be the most heavily guarded prison in western Europe. A number of the 19 escapers later died on active service with the IRA while others were extradited back to prison in the Six Counties.
In an interview in An Phoblacht/Republican News at the time, the IRA described the escape:
“We perceived the escape as a military operation from beginning to end. It could not have been achieved in any other way, and the Active Service Unit – as Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army – were under strict orders throughout from an operations officer whose judgement was crucial and whose every order had to be obeyed.”