Concessions to prisoners led to complete chaos at Maze prison

The Maze Prison: A Hidden Story of Chaos, Anarchy and Politics
The Maze Prison: A Hidden Story of Chaos, Anarchy and Politics

TOM MURTAGH, a former deputy governor at the Maze, tells why his new book is an attempt to correct the rewriting of history of the controversial prison

In 2007 Waterside Press invited me to write an account of my experiences in Northern Ireland.

Former Maze deputy governor and author Tom Murtagh

Former Maze deputy governor and author Tom Murtagh

I did not immediately pursue the matter. But after reading many accounts by prisoners and others claiming to describe life in the Maze and specific events such as the hunger-strikes, their aftermath; the 1983 escape; the descent of the prison into total chaos; and aspects of the peace process, I concluded that collectively these partisan accounts were effectively rewriting the history of the Maze Prison.

Though some of these accounts were formidable and courageous, they generally painted a biased picture in glorification of their own organisations.

From my experience, I knew that many were blatantly dishonest and demeaning of prison staff in an attempt to give credence to untrue allegations of brutality made during The Troubles.

Though the sometimes destructive role of ministers and senior Northern Ireland Office officials was known to some, it has never been placed firmly in the public domain.

As no-one else seemed prepared to write about these things, I decided to accept the publisher’s invitation.

The narrative is based on the recollections of a large number of prison staff who served at all levels at The Maze, including senior governors and top civil servants who also worked within Prison Service headquarters during relevant periods.

It is also informed by the comments of former prisoners. The narrative has also been constructed from extensive research of public records, media archives, academic papers and extensive publications on the subject.

In so far as it is possible to achieve a balance in Northern Ireland society, I have attempted to present one.

The dynamics of prison management are complex and dependent on various interrelated factors and procedures prescribed in Prison Rules and Operating Instructions.

This approach to managing prisons is common throughout the UK and most of the world. Fundamental to it is ensuring that the governor and staff remain in control.

It was normal practice in other UK prison services for matters of policy and operations to be separate. If a policy change was being contemplated it would be subjected to a thorough analysis by prison service professionals to access its impact on control and discipline and on the staffing resource implications.

No such provision existed in Northern Ireland when some of the most seriously flawed political policy decisions were made.

No prison service professional was consulted and, incredibly, there were no Prison Service professionals in HQ.

By the late 1970s when a small number of prison governors came into HQ they were seldom consulted.

As a consequences disastrous decisions, including the granting to prisoners of special category, were made, allowing them privileges that disrupted the regime.

This adversely affected staff control and undermined the governor’s ability to manage the prison as a normal prison, which ministers demanded that they did!

It also empowered paramilitary leaders, giving them authority over individual prisoners and a say in the allocation of prisoners to specific wings and work, etc.

Though the disastrous consequences of this were quickly identified, attempts to retrieve the situation proved more difficult and would result in the murder of 29 prison staff, serious injury to many others and unbelievable suffering on the part of them and their families.

My book which I have called The Maze Prison: A Hidden Story of Chaos, Anarchy and Politics critically examines how the decisions and behaviour of ministers and senior NIO Officials repeatedly undermined the authority of the governor and empowered prisoners throughout the Maze Prison era; it presents a different perspective on the ‘dirty protest’ and the hunger-strikes, with previously undisclosed facts; it examines the post hunger-strike decisions by ministers and how these eventually impacted on the 1983 mass escape; it critically examines the chief inspector’s report into that escape and how ministers and senior NIO officials appear to have conspired to avoid the consequences of their decisions by scapegoating the governor.

The narrative tells how republican and loyalist paramilitary groups conspired throughout the existence of the prison and especially on the issue of segregation, leading to the a regime identical to that originally granted to special category prisoners for most; how HQ officials regularly ignored the governor, making concessions to prisoners without his knowledge, and how this eventually led to complete chaos through regime concessions that were unprecedented and indefensible in any closed establishment, especially a high-security prison.

Above all my book dispels many myths and legends about what was once described as ‘one of the most dangerous prisons in the world’.

• Tom Murtagh held the posts of deputy governor, head of security and head of personnel in the Maze at various times between 1973 and 1988. During his career he also served as governor of both Armagh prison and Hydebank Young Offenders Centre.

• The Maze Prison: A Hidden Story of Chaos, Anarchy and Politics is published by Waterside Press and available from booksellers priced at £40.