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The Spirit of Freedom and Resistance, Long Kesh Prison Closed

Her Majesty's Prison Maze, also called Long Kesh, is a high security prison located about ten miles from Belfast in Northern Ireland's County Antrim. The largest of Northern Ireland's prisons, it was established on the site of Long Kesh Royal Air Force Base, a World War II airfield, in the early 1970s. Hundreds of men were rounded up; while some were tried and sentenced before imprisonment, others were imprisoned without trial.

All were prisoners taken by the British government in its war against both the Irish Republican Army (IRA), fighting to free Northern Ireland from British rule, and the Loyalist Volunteer Forces (LVF), the Ulster force fighting to maintain British sovereignty. In 1974 there were 1,800 such prisoners, the largest number ever held in the prison. During that year, Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, together with other remanded prisoners, joined forces with sentenced prisoners and burned the camp to the ground. Five members of the current Northern Ireland Assembly have served time there.

The British government claims HM Prison Maze is the highest security prison in all of Europe. In spite of this, prisoners have escaped single, and in groups, the latter through tunnels they constructed during the 70s. The most serious breach of security occurred in 1983, when 38 IRA men escaped, killing a prison guard in the process.

Guerrillas, both Republican and Loyalist, were considered political prisoners _ prisoners of war _ and accorded special category status and segregated according to the paramilitary groups to which they belonged. In 1976 the government ended this special political status and began to treat paramilitaries as ordinary criminals. Two uprisings protested the change in policy, first in 1976 and then in 1981. While political prisoners had been allowed to wear their own clothing, ordinary prisoners were obliged to wear prison issue. Consequently during the `76 strike prisoners wore bed clothing rather than prison garb. They then went on a "dirty protest," during which they refused to shower, destroyed furniture with which they littered both cells and corridors and they smeared walls with feces. Hunger strikes formed part of both protests, and in 1981, ten prisoners led by convicted IRA bomber Bobby Sands, starved to death. In tribute to his political significance, he was elected to the British Parliament from Northern Ireland.

As a result of the protests a good many changes were made during the 1980s: Prisoners were moved into a new huge cellular complex of eight HBlocks, each containing 100 cells, constructed in the late `70s. This allowed prison authorities to segregate prisoners again according to the paramilitary army to which they belonged.

HM Prison Maze was the only prison in Northern Ireland where prisoners were so segregated; to do otherwise was to invite trouble since murders of prisoners by other prisoners, members of opposing armies, were not unknown. In December of `97, a Loyalist militant was murdered and some months later an IRA prisoner on remand was found dead in his cell. According to the New York Times, however, it was "a place where guards were more endangered than [prisoners;] ... 22 guards and a deputy governor [warden] of the Maze were killed by guerrillas acting on information from inside."

During the 1980s prisoners were once again allowed to wear their own clothing rather than prison uniforms, they were not required to work and they obtained increased access to visits and letters. Since 1994, when prisoners negotiated the right, they have not been confined to cells except when necessary for head counts. They also won the concession from HMP Maze authorities so that guards could not search prisoners' quarters without specific permission from their commanders' _ and were required to give 24 hours notice. Many prisoners entered HMP Maze essentially unlettered and left with "Free University" degrees, even doctorates. It has been referred to more than once by its detractors as the "University of Terrorism," and as "Freedom University" by its supporters.

In 1995, in response to cease fires on the part of the Loyalists and Republican armies, the British government introduced the Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Act under the terms of which prisoners convicted of terrorist related offenses would be released on license (parole) after having served half of their sentences. Prior to that time, prisoners sentenced to life served an average of 15 years before they could be considered for release. In 1998, in accordance with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement of that year, the government introduced the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act, which made prisoners sentenced to five years or more for terrorist acts eligible to apply for early release from the Independent Sentence Review Commission. The Good Friday Agreement itself would have been impossible without the go ahead received from prisoner leaders inside HMP Maze.

Again in accordance with that Agreement, in July 2000, the last 87 Irish Republican and proBritish Loyalist prisoners covered under the Agreement left HMP Maze. There remained only 15 dissidents, convicted for actions that took place after the Agreement. By the end of September there remained only four of these: Three Loyalist prisoners were transferred to Maghaberry Prison near Belfast and the one Republican prisoner was moved to Magilligan jail in County Londonderry. What is to become of the now empty prison has yet to be determined. Some Irish nationalists would like to see it become a museum, others an office development while still others want it destroyed.

"The lark, having suffered the loss of her liberty, no longer sung her little heart out, ... The man who committed the atrocity, as my grandfather called it, covered the cage with a black cloth, depriving the bird of sunlight. He starved it, left it to rot in a dirty cage, but the bird still refused to yield. It longed to be free, and died before it would conform to the tyrant who tried to change it with torture and imprisonment. As my grandfather rightly stated, the lark had spirit_ the spirit of freedom and resistance."g

Sources: The Irish People, "The Voice of Irish Republicanism; The New York Times; The Lark and the Freedom Fighter, by Bobby Sands; The Los Angeles Times; the Northern Ireland Prison Service web site; and the British Broadcasting Corporation web site.

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