At the end of 2021, the movie belfast From writer/director Kenneth Branagh, starring Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe and Judi Dench The film is shown nationwide. The film is a coming-of-age drama set in Northern Ireland during a period known as the Troubles, which lasted from the late 1960s to the late 1990s.
“The Trouble” was a violent clash between nationalists (mostly calling themselves Irish or Roman Catholic) and trade unionists (mostly calling themselves British or Protestant). This period ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
until belfastApart from the fact that the conflict included Bloody Sunday, I don’t know much about “Trouble” – which is what I first learned from U2’s song bloody sunday.
I bring it up, though, because “The Trouble” also includes the famous escape from the Maze Prison (aka Runkersh Detention Center) in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s.
One of the most famous prisons in British history, the Labyrinth Prison is an important part of “The Trouble” for a number of reasons. In today’s blog post, we’ll dig into that history. We have one more question to answer: can you visit the Labyrinth Prison today?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
- A Brief History of the Labyrinth Prison
- How to use the Maze Prison during The Troubles?
- Maze Break (aka The Great Escape)
- maze prison and peace
- Can you visit the labyrinth prison?
A Brief History of the Labyrinth Prison
Her Majesty’s Prison Labyrinth (formerly Long Kesh Detention Centre, colloquially known as The Labyrinth or H-Blocks) is located in the Labyrinth (a Belfast suburb) at Long Kesh, a former RAF base on the outskirts of Lisburn, Northern Ireland.
The facility became operational in 1971, following the introduction of an internment system. At that time, the British army carried out Operation Demetri, searched for 452 suspects and arrested more than 300 Irish nationalists. But those involved have been accused of using outdated information to botch the operation and arrest the wrong people.
How to use the Maze Prison during The Troubles?
The Nissen Hut (steel barracks) at RAF Base was used to train those captured during Operation Demetrius. These buildings became the Long Kesh Detention Centre.
In most cases, prisons are used to house special categories of political prisoners. But in the end, convicted people are sent to the facility, which does create some problems.
In the late 1970s, eight new “H-Blocks” were constructed at the former Air Force Base, and the facility was officially named Her Majesty’s Prison Labyrinth. These blocks were supposed to house prisoners convicted of criminal activity (rather than political prisoners with special category status, such as those involved in “trouble”).
“The eight H-shaped prisons – so named for their uniform ‘H’-shaped plan – together form a maximum security prison purpose-built for political prisoners. Compounds/cages with Long Kesh house prisoners in Nissen Unlike in huts, the H-Block separates prisoners into individual cells.
Each H-Block is surrounded by a concrete wall topped with barbed wire, and the gates inside the building are constructed of solid steel. The entire site is also surrounded by watchtowers and walls. The large complex also includes a separate hospital building, a visitation building, a multi-denominational church and two large football fields, as well as administrative buildings. “
The status of political prisoners is constantly changing depending on who is responsible. But political prisoners do not consider themselves “ordinary criminals.” However, the prison population continues to mix.
This sparked protests, which included prisoners refusing to wear uniforms and wrapping themselves in sheets. The protest was dubbed “On the Blanket”.
After years of protesting, “on the blanket,” more than 300 men joined the cause. But the British government refused to budge. This has led to inmates refusing to leave their cells to shower or use the toilet because they would be beaten if they did.
Prisoners “on blankets” were given washbasins to use in their cells. However, they were also repeatedly beaten defenseless. Prison guards were almost entirely Protestant and had a “lust for revenge” against Irish Catholic prisoners.
For five years, the conflict between the political prisoners of the Labyrinth and the government has been going on. The “on the blanket” protest eventually turned into a “dirty protest.” This means inmates refuse to leave their cells to “dump,” or empty their bedpans. Instead, they smear the excrement on the cell walls to “reduce the spread of maggots”.
This culminated in the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike at the Labyrinth. The leader of the Provisional IRA, inmate Bobby Sands, led a hunger strike inside the prison. Outside, Sands was nominated for Parliament, won.
However, the government and the new prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, continued to resist, and after 66 days of hunger strike, Sands died. More than 100,000 people attended his funeral in Belfast. Over the next few months, nine more strikers died. The hunger strike was officially called off in October 1981.
On September 25, 1983, 38 prisoners hijacked a prison dining car and broke through a maze in one of the largest prison breaks in Europe. For Irish Republicans, it was called “The Great Escape”.
Four prison guards were stabbed during the incident, one of whom died of a heart attack. Another officer was shot in the head and several others were wounded. Known as one of the most escape-proof prisons in Europe, breaking out of the maze is astounding.
Nineteen fugitives were eventually captured and sent back. However, the other 19 escaped.This incredible true story was adapted into a drama in the 2017 film maze.
maze prison and peace
Prisoners at Maze Prison played an important role in the Northern Ireland peace process in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Talks between the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and prisoners from the Ulster Defense Society led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
After peace was reached and a ceasefire was agreed, Metz Prison released all parliamentary political prisoners – 428 in total. The remaining four inmates in the prison were transferred to another facility, and Labyrinth Prison was closed in September 2000.
Many buildings have been demolished since the closure. However, some still survive to this day.
A number of ideas and proposals have been submitted for the property, including a museum, multi-purpose stadium, offices, hotel, leisure village and peace centre. So far, none of these projects have been developed.
In 2020, the site of the former jail was considered for conversion into a makeshift COVID hospital.
Can you visit the labyrinth prison?
The first public tour of Labyrinth Prison took place in 2011, and it’s still possible to visit if you’re connected. The site is officially closed to the public. So technically the answer to today’s blog post question is “no”. However, if you know the right person in the UK government, you might be able to take a guided tour of the property.
An H-Block is still standing, as is the prison hospital, where Bobby Sands’ last bed is said to be.
Did you know that Maze Prison was created for political prisoners during The Troubles? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: How 38 IRA Members Pulled Off the UK’s Biggest Prison Escape Maze Prison Inside the Maze Prison -- The First Public Tour Bobby Sands’ bed and Long Kesh/Maze’s afterlife https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/bobby-sands-bed-and-long-kesh-maze-s-afterlife-1.2814608#:~:text=Due%20to%20its%20associations%20with,closed%20to%20the%20general%20public). The H-Blocks Maze Prison Maze