Mill Isle, Ireland

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From the AMAZED series ~ behind the barbed wire gates of

HMP MAZE Prison Long Kesh Northern Ireland

Her Majesty’s Prison Maze (known colloquially as The H Blocks, Long Kesh, or The Maze) was a prison used to house paramilitary prisoners during the Northern Ireland Troubles from 1976 to 2000. It is in the former Royal Air Force station at Long Kesh near Lisburn, nine miles (14 km) outside Belfast, in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The prison and its inmates have played a prominent role in recent Irish history, notably in the 1981 hunger strike. The prison was closed in 2000 and razing began on 30 October 2006.

Following the introduction of internment in 1971 “Operation Demetrius” was implemented by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and British Army with raids for 452 suspects on 9 August, 1971. The RUC and army arrested 342 Catholics, but key Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) members had been tipped off and 104 of those arrested were released when it emerged they had no paramilitary connections. Those behind Operation Demetrius were accused of bungling, by arresting many of the wrong people and using out of date information.

Later, some loyalists were also arrested. By 1972 there were 924 internees and by the end of internment on 5 December 1975 1,981 people had been detained; 1,874 of whom were Catholic and 107 Protestants. Initially the internees were housed, with different paramilitary groups separated from each other, in Nissen huts at a disused RAF airfield that became the Long Kesh Detention Centre. The internees and their supporters agitated for improvements in their conditions and status; they saw themselves as political prisoners rather than common criminals. In July 1972 William Whitelaw introduced Special Category Status for those sentenced for crimes relating to the civil violence. There were 1,100 Special Category prisoners at that time.

“Special Category” status for convicted paramilitary-linked criminals gave them the same privileges previously available only to internees. These privileges included free association between prisoners, extra visits, food parcels and the right to wear their own clothes rather than prison uniforms.

However, Special Category Status was short-lived. As part of the government’s policy of “criminalisation”, and coinciding with the end of internment, the new Secretary of State, Merlyn Rees, ended Special Category Status from 1 March, 1976. Those convicted of scheduled terrorist offences after that date were housed in the eight new “H-Blocks” that had been constructed at Long Kesh, now officially named Her Majesty’s Prison Maze (HMP Maze). Existing prisoners remained in separate compounds and retained their Special Category status with the last prisoner to hold this status released in 1986.

Some prisoners changed from being Special Category prisoners to being common criminals within the space of several hours; Brendan Hughes, an IRA prisoner, had been imprisoned with Special Category Status in Cage 11 but was alleged to have been involved in a fight with warders. He was taken to court and convicted then returned to the jail as a common prisoner and incarcerated in the H-Blocks as an ordinary prisoner – all within the space of several hours.

Republicans outside the prison took the battle to the media and both sides fought for public support. Inside the prison the prisoners took another step and organised a hunger strike. On 27 October, 1980, seven Republican prisoners refused food and demanded political status. Thatcher’s Conservative government did not initially give in. In December the prisoners called off the hunger strike when the government appeared to concede their demands. However, the government immediately reverted to their previous stance, confident the prisoners would not start another strike. Bobby Sands, the Officer Commanding of the Provisional IRA prisoners, began a second action on 1 March, 1981.

Outside the prison in a major publicity coup, Sands was nominated for Parliament and won the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election. But the British government was still resisting and on 5 May, after 66 days on hunger strike, Sands died. More than 100,000 people attended Bobby Sands’ funeral in Belfast. Another nine hunger strikers (members of both the IRA and the INLA) died by the end of August before the hunger strike was ended.

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