\"Gerry

Gerry Kelly. Photo by: Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland

The Great Escape, finally the inside story of Northern Ireland’s biggest jailbreak

\"Gerry

Gerry Kelly. Photo by: Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland

The inside story of the September 25, 1983 H-Block escape by 38 Republican prisoners from the supposedly impregnable jail is one of the great untold stories of The Troubles.

Until now.

A key figure in the escape was Gerry Kelly, now a junior minister in the Northern Irish government but back then a legendary IRA figure famous for his ability to escape from prisons as much as anything else.

Kelly has now told the inside story of the mass escape and it is a vivid and engrossing read. The book is simply entitled "The Escape" and is available on Amazon.

It was two years after Bobby Sands and nine others had died in Long Kesh on hunger strike and a deeply demoralized Republican movement leadership behind bars tried to bring back a sense of direction and planning. A prison break-out seemed a perfect morale booster.

To make the escape they had to take over an entire wing of the prison, hijack a prison food van, drive it through several checkpoints, past a nearby British Army base and then escape from an area deeply unsympathetic to Republicans.

Of course it did not all go to plan in the end, but the inside story, long speculated upon, reads like a Le Carre thriller.

There were casualties, a warder died of a heart attack, a prison guard was shot but recovered. There were horrific beatings of prisoners when the escape was discovered.

It was the second largest break out of prisoners since the Second World War, but many made it barely beyond the gates.

Despite the meticulous planning, the command that information be only passed along on a “need to know” basis, the smuggling of six guns inside hollowed out Doc Martens boots, the plan still went awry.

The simple fact that the food truck was late that particular Sunday almost scuttled the escape. The difference in timing meant a new shift of prison officers came on duty; they mingled with those whose shift had just ended, which meant there were twice as many guards were on duty as had been expected.

Kelly recreates the dialogue among the IRA figures at the time, led by the legendary Bobby Storey, a giant of a man at six foot six inches who commanded the escape.

The description of the drive out of the prison once the H Block 7 control room had been commandeered, and left in the care of prisoners who were not part of the escape, is harrowing.

Sometimes, too, it is downright comic, as when the IRA escapees wearing stolen prison guards’ uniforms caused mass confusion among real prison officers as to who was real and who was an escapee.

The final gate to freedom was blocked when the breakout was finally copped by the prison officers.

Instead the IRA prisoners grabbed cars, ran through barbed wire and scattered whatever way they could across the local countryside.

Many were caught immediately but many escaped too.  Some walked for nights and rested by day hiding in bushes; others drove frantically to nationalist areas and desperately sought Republican supporters.

Kelly himself ended up in an arms bunker underneath a house where he and eight others lived for two weeks until a safe passage could be found to the Irish Republic. Some made their way to the U.S. where they still live.

This is a book that reads like a thriller and involved an escape that went down in history. Margaret Thatcher was outraged, as was the British cabinet, but in Republican areas there was mass jubilation.

How they did it is outlined for the first time by Kelly.  In the most ironic twist of course, Kelly became a critical leader of the peace process and a government minister.

One of his responsibilities? The same H Blocks he once escaped from.

Sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

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