An escape tunnel discovered on the site of the North's infamous Maze Prison may have been dug by loyalist paramilitaries 30 years ago, it was claimed tonight.
Workmen found the 60ft long underground passageway as they moved in to demolish the compound near Lisburn, Co Antrim.
It is believed to have been part of a break-out plot hatched during the 1970s while hundreds of loyalists and republicans were held in the Long Kesh camp first erected in the grounds.
One theory is the route out was abandoned when inmates discovered it was actually in the middle of the site where the notorious H-blocks were being built for the opening of the Maze in 1976.
But Billy Hutchinson, a former prisoner later elected to the Stormont Assembly, claimed it may have been another part of a tunnel Ulster Defence Association were caught building.
He said: "It sounds like it could have been linked to the opening they found at Compound 20.
"The UDA dug one there, but heavy rain caved part of it in.
"The prison authorities came in, took all the UDA ones out, put them in plastic handcuffs, beat the c**p out of them and made them run the gauntlet.
"But whether they discovered it all or not, maybe this is another part of where they dug."
Mr Hutchinson, held at Long Kesh and the Maze with rival Ulster Volunteer Force men, told how UVF leader Gusty Spence demanded a halt to the alleged punishment.
"Gusty told them to stop or he would get his men to come over the wall at them.
"It was a breach of their human rights, and once he issued his warning to the prison governors they stopped it."
The new discovery was made after bags of dirt were found hidden in the roofs of the Nissen huts where the Long Kesh prisoners were kept.
The earth was also packed into the outer walls of toilet blocks.
Gavin Smyth, a digger operator with the demolition firm brought on to the Maze site as part of a multi-million pound renovation plan, told the Belfast Telegraph: "There was tons of it.
"The dirt was all in bags in the roof, like sugar bags, made from blankets and pillow cases."
It was only when Mr Smyth's digger fell into the tunnel that the escape route was uncovered.
Desmond Rodgers, foreman with John McQuillan and Sons, said: "It was half filled with water."
Colleague Sammy McVeigh added: "There was a big roll of cable in there as well.
"It was used, so they must have stripped it from somewhere else to use it for lights."
Attempted break-outs were part of the history of the compound, with IRA men also involved numerous bids to tunnel their way to freedom.