"It wasn't just an escape, it was a major IRA operation.”
It was deemed the most secure prison in the whole of Europe, an imposing, state-of-the-art edifice designed to play host to paramilitaries at war on the streets of Northern Ireland.
Built on the site of a disused Royal Air Force base in rural County Antrim, and opened in 1971 to house suspected Republican paramilitaries interned during the highly controversial Operation Demetrius, Her Majesty’s Prison Maze was guarded by armed soldiers and fitted with hundreds of alarm points.
In 1983, however, following an audacious plot by high-ranking IRA inmates, 38 prisoners managed escaped the Maze after effectively taking control of H-Block 7 and disarming all guards present, one of whom later died of a heart attack. They made their escape in a sequestered food van before the alarm had even been raised.
Now Dublin-based writer and director Stephen Burke has dramatized the events of September 25, 1983 in his tense new thriller Maze, on general release from September 22. It is a follow on, of sorts, to his acclaimed Troubles shorts After 68 and 81.
Former Republican prisoner Laurence McKeown (pictured), who served 16 years of a life sentence for his part in an attack on an RUC patrol in 1976 and was present in the Maze during the escape, has praised the efforts of Burke for “filling a vacuum” in Northern Ireland.
“I’ve been working for many years now as a playwright,” says the 61-year-old, whose play Blue and Green tours in October. “And I believe that we can use the arts as a way of dealing with a lot of the issues arising out of our conflict here in Northern Ireland. Film is also a great way of doing so.
“By watching films like Maze, people here can engage with characters who they would never otherwise have the opportunity to meet in other walks of life. I think the arts are very powerful in that sense. They pose questions, they answer questions, they make us reflect. Maze is an informative take on an important episode in our shared history.”
The film follows the exploits of Republican prisoner Larry Marley, played by Dubliner Tom-Vaughan-Lowler, as he masterminds the highly secretive prison break from his H-Block 6 cell. While McKeown agrees that Burke has been selective in his retelling of the story, he acknowledges that Maze is an “authentic” addition to the canon.
“The story of the escape is a massive story in itself,” adds McKeown. “There is so much involved in it. For the IRA to take charge of a prison block and hold it for two hours without the rest of the prison knowing was remarkable. It wasn’t just an escape, it was a major IRA operation.”
The escape followed several years of intense protests in the Maze as members of the Provisional IRA and Irish National Liberation Army fought their status as criminals as opposed to political prisoners. McKeown himself took part in the Blanket Protest, which saw prisoners refuse to wash or wear prison uniform and ultimately culminated in the famous Hunger Strikes of 1981.
“The film does capture the mind-set of IRA prisoners at the time, as we came out of the Blanket Protest and the Hunger Strikes, which completely destroyed the British government’s criminalisation policy,” says McKeown.
“It was a time of change. We were in our own clothes, we were allowed out into the yard for exercise. When the Hunger Strike ended with the deaths of ten comrades, there was immense sadness, but also a determination that our outstanding demands would be achieved. There was great discipline, unity of approach, unity of purpose. The prison break took place two years later.”
McKeown contends that neither he, nor many of the prisoners selected to join the escape party, knew anything about Marley’s plan until the day of the break, during which twenty guards were injured.
“Security around it was extremely tight. It was on an IRA need-to-know basis. So no-one outside of H-Block 7 knew about it and a lot of people actually in H-Block 7, and who eventually went on the break, didn’t know about it until a very short time beforehand.
“I’ve always thought that that was the main strength of the escape. I think that where some people saw walls and iron grills and bars and doors, Larry Marley saw people and therefore human weakness. Guards got into a routine. They became lackadaisical, and that’s what the escape exploited.”
Two years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and the subsequent early release of selected paramilitary prisoners, the Maze was decommissioned. Burke’s film, therefore, was shot mainly in Cork Prison on the south coast of Ireland.
Having served time himself, McKeown understands why audiences are drawn to the prison break genre in cinema. He cites the likes of John Sturge’s The Great Escape and Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption as prime examples of the form.
“Films about prisons are made about the prisoners, not about the screws or the governors, because it’s invariably about escape. Audiences like the idea of David up against Goliath. They can relate to that. They want to see prisoners winning, even if they don’t necessarily agree with their politics. They want to see them overcoming the system.”
Nevertheless, McKeown is impressed that Burke managed to get Maze off the ground and onto screens. “I think these stories should be told,” he concludes.
“But no-one is going to come running to your door to fund a film like this in Northern Ireland. They just don’t want to go near the politics. So to get the film funded in the first place is an amazing achievement.”
By Lee Henry