New book gives Maze governor’s account of life in powder keg jail

The former high-security Maze prison on the outskirts of Lisburn in Co Antrim
The former high-security Maze prison on the outskirts of Lisburn in Co Antrim

Secret deals between government officials and inmates at the Maze – without consulting or informing the governors of the prison – were “unprecedented and indefensible,” a former head of security at the prison has said.

Concession after concession to prisoner demands led to paramilitary inmates having ‘special category’ status in all but name with disastrous consequences for those attempting to reinstate proper security, according to retired deputy governor Tom Murtagh.

Former Maze deputy governor and author Tom Murtagh

Former Maze deputy governor and author Tom Murtagh

In a new book being launched tomorrow, Mr Murtagh also presents what he calls “a different perspective on the ‘dirty protest’ and the hunger-strikes,” and examines the post hunger-strike decisions taken by government ministers and how those decisions eventually impacted on the mass escape in 1983.

Although approached with a view to writing his account of the regime at the Maze more than a decade ago, the author gave it considerable thought before deciding to address what he describes as the “partisan” accounts of others.

“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,” Mr Murtagh, the author of The Maze Prison: A Hidden Story of Chaos, Anarchy and Politics, said.

The high-security prison near Lisburn was embroiled in controversy throughout its 29-year history until it closed in 2000.

In the early 1980s, 10 republican hunger-strikers died during a powder-keg period for prison officers and their families living under sustained threat of violence. Although prime minister Margaret Thatcher faced down the hunger-strikes, morale was partially restored with the escape of 38 IRA prisoners in 1983. In 1997, a gun smuggled into INLA inmates was used to kill LVF leader Billy Wright. Almost 30 prison officers were also murdered during the Troubles.

Mr Murtagh said previous works by former inmates “generally painted a biased picture in glorification of their own organisations”.

• 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.