The escape from the H-Blocks of Long Kesh (known as the Great Escape) took place on 25 September 1983. In the biggest prison escape in British history, 38 Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners, who had been convicted of offences including murder and causing explosions, escaped from H-Block 7 (H7) of the prison. One prison officer died of a heart attack as a result of the escape and twenty others were injured, including two who were shot with guns that had been smuggled into the prison.The escape was a propaganda coup for the IRA, and a British government minister faced calls to resign. The official inquiry into the escape placed most of the blame onto prison staff, who in turn blamed the escape on political interference in the running of the prison.
HM Prison Maze was considered one of the most escape-proof prisons in Europe. In addition to 15-foot (4.6 m) fences, each H-Block was encompassed by an 18-foot (5.5 m) concrete wall topped with barbed wire, and all gates on the complex were made of solid steel and electronically operated. Prisoners had been planning the escape for several months. Bobby Storey and Gerry Kelly had started working as orderlies in H7, which allowed them to identify weaknesses in the security systems, and six handguns had been smuggled into the prison. Shortly after 2:30 pm on 25 September, prisoners seized control of H7 by simultaneously taking the prison officers hostage at gunpoint in order to prevent them from triggering an alarm. One officer was stabbed with a craft knife, and another was knocked down by a blow to the back of the head. One officer who attempted to prevent the escape was shot in the head by Gerry Kelly, but survived. By 2:50 pm the prisoners were in total control of H7 without an alarm being raised. A dozen prisoners also took uniforms from the officers, and the officers were also forced to hand over their car keys and details of where their cars were, for possible later use during the escape. A rear guard was left behind to watch over hostages and keep the alarm from being raised until they believed the escapees were clear of the prison, when they returned to their cells. At 3:25 pm, a lorry delivering food supplies arrived at the entrance to H7, where Brendan McFarlane and other prisoners took the occupants hostage at gunpoint and took them inside H7. The lorry driver was told the lorry was being used in the escape, and he was instructed what route to take and how to react if challenged. Bobby Storey told the driver that “This man [Gerry Kelly] is doing 30 years and he will shoot you without hesitation if he has to. He has nothing to lose”.
At 3:50 pm the prisoners left H7, and the driver and a prison orderly were taken back to the lorry, and the driver’s foot tied to the clutch. 37 prisoners climbed into the back of the lorry, while Gerry Kelly lay on the floor of the cab with a gun pointed at the driver, who was also told the cab had been booby trapped with a hand grenade. At nearly 4:00 pm the lorry drove towards the main gate of the prison, where the prisoners intended to take over the gatehouse. Ten prisoners dressed in guards’ uniforms and armed with guns and chisels dismounted from the lorry and entered the gatehouse, where they took the officers hostage. At 4:05 pm the officers began to resist, and an officer pressed an alarm button. When other staff responded via an intercom, a senior officer said while being held at gunpoint that the alarm had been triggered accidentally. By this time the prisoners were struggling to maintain control in the gatehouse due to the number of hostages. Officers arriving for work were entering the gatehouse from outside the prison, and each was ordered at gunpoint to join the other hostages. Officer James Ferris ran from the gatehouse towards the pedestrian gate attempting to raise the alarm, pursued by Dermot Finucane. Ferris had already been stabbed three times in the chest, and before he could raise the alarm he collapsed.
Finucane continued to the pedestrian gate where he stabbed the officer controlling the gate, and two officers who had just entered the prison. This incident was seen by a soldier on duty in a watch tower, who reported to the Army operations room that he had seen prison officers fighting. The operations room telephoned the prison’s Emergency Control Room (ECR), which replied that everything was all right and that an alarm had been accidentally triggered earlier. At 4:12 pm the alarm was raised when an officer in the gatehouse pushed the prisoner holding him hostage out of the room and telephoned the ECR. However, this was not done soon enough to prevent the escape. After several attempts the prisoners had opened the main gate, and were waiting for the prisoners still in the gatehouse to rejoin them in the lorry. At this time two prison officers blocked the exit with their cars, forcing the prisoners to abandon the lorry and make their way to the outer fence which was 25 yards away. Four prisoners attacked one of the officers and hijacked his car, which they drove towards the external gate. They crashed into a car near the gate and abandoned the car. Two escaped through the gate, one was captured exiting the car, and another was captured after being chased by a soldier. At the main gate, a prison officer was shot in the leg while chasing the only two prisoners who had not yet reached the outer fence. The prisoner who fired the shot was captured after being shot and wounded by a soldier in a watch tower, and the other prisoner was captured after falling. The other prisoners escaped over the fence, and by 4:18 pm the main gate was closed and the prison secured, after 35 prisoners had successfully breached the perimeter of the prison. The escape was the biggest in British history, and the biggest in Europe since World War II.
Outside the prison the IRA had planned a logistical support operation involving 100 armed members, but due to a miscalculation of five minutes the prisoners found no transport waiting for them and were forced to flee across fields or hijack vehicles. The British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary immediately activated a contingency plan, and by 4:25 pm a cordon of vehicle check points were in place around the prison, and others were later in place in strategic positions across Northern Ireland, resulting in the recapture of one prisoner at 11:00 pm. Twenty prison officers were injured during the escape, thirteen were kicked and beaten, four stabbed, two shot, and another, James Ferris, died after suffering a heart attack during the escape.