The Northern Ireland Office report, released by the UK National Archives, details how the escape from the Maze Prison H-Block unfolded, and the UK Government’s determination that the IRA should not be able to gain from the episode.
British PM at the time, Margaret Thatcher, declared it was “even worse than we thought” after learning the staggering details behind the top security Maze prison break out in which 38 IRA inmates went on the run.
She penned her thoughts across the top of a secret government document which landed on her desk five days after the September 25 1983 mass escape from the jail in the North became the worst prison break-out in British history.
In the immediate aftermath, strongly-worded advice sent by telegram from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to its mission and dependent territories stressed: “You should take every opportunity to limit the propaganda benefit the IRA will reap from the outbreak ... The Government regard the outbreak most seriously.”
One prison officer was killed and another was seriously injured. The prisoners used smuggled guns and knives to overpower staff before hijacking a food lorry which they used to drive to the main gate.
Prison officers were “overpowered” in a series of attacks as the escape started at around 2.45pm, according the papers.
It notes that officers in all four wings were attacked at the same time. This included those who were guarding the gates between the wings and the central circle including “by a prisoner with a gun and in the other by a prisoner with a screwdriver”.
A prison officer who was on duty in the H7 control room was shot twice in the head by a prisoner in the circle firing through the grille.
The kitchen van bringing the meals for the prisoners was hijacked at gunpoint and its driver was forced to help the prisoners flee by driving the van to the main gate.
The document states: “The prison officer driver drove the van out of H7 with 37 prisoners concealed in the back and one prisoner kneeling on the floor of the cab with a gun pointed at the prison officer’s stomach.
“The van passed through two manned control gates without being searched despite the standard security rule at Maze that all vehicles are checked when passing through a control gate.
“The prison officer driver was instructed to park the van in the transport parking area adjacent to the main gate and tally lodge. At this point the prisoners disembarked and attacked staff in the main gate and tall lodge area.
“Despite being heavily out-numbered the staff resisted strongly and one prison officer (Ferris) was stabbed and later died. A number of others were also injured. The outer main gate in the perimeter wall of the prison was opened by a prisoner operating the hydraulic mechanism.”
With the alarm now blaring, two prison officers in their cars outside the main gate unsuccessfully tried to block the exit.
In response the prisoners leapt out of the van, ran out of the main gate and across the fields as they were chased by prison officers.
Security forces mounted the biggest search operation Northern Ireland has ever seen within minutes of the escape from the prison near Lisburn. Ten prisoners were recaptured within the first few hours.
By the time that Mrs Thatcher was sent the document 19 prisoners had been recaptured.
Northern Ireland Secretary James Prior, who had pledged the escapees would be “hunted down whether they are be in the north or the south of Ireland”, had asked the Chief Inspector of Prisons Sir James Hennesssy to carry out an inquiry.
“It will be prompt, rigorous and searching,” the document states. “Meanwhile you should restrict comment to the above while not commenting on the details of the outbreak or on speculation about lax security. The matter is in effect sub judice.”