x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Sinn Fein leader fights to preserve his 'old cage'

Twenty-five years after his historic prison break, Belfast party chairman is struggling with the British government over a commemoration.

The Maze Prison in Northern Ireland was the site of the biggest prison break in British history.
The Maze Prison in Northern Ireland was the site of the biggest prison break in British history.

Maze Prison is a cold, depressing place. Bobby Storey is sitting on a bed. He rises and walks five steps until his nose touches the wall. The air reeks. Instead of a toilet, he uses a plastic potty. Mr Storey spends 23 hours locked in his cell every day. These are memories he now fights to preserve. Mr Storey is the chairman of Sinn Fein, the Irish republican political party, in Belfast. But on Sept 25 1983, the day of the biggest prison break in British history, he was a member of the Irish Republican Army, serving the second year of an 18-year sentence for shooting a British soldier. Today, 25 years since the "Great Escape", Mr Storey and thousands of Irish Republicans await the decision whether the site will receive commemoration. "The argument is it will amount to a shrine," Mr Storey said. "But we want it as a university of freedom. Other people need to know what happened here. It was a place of constant struggle over our identity, equality and beliefs. Not about horror and death. My memory is about the struggle." In the end, he would spend more than 20 years in the Maze, freed in 1994, four years before the Good Friday accords were signed. But he does not consider his experience to be exceptional. In 1981, Bobby Sands, the leader of the Provisional IRA prisoners, starved himself to death after 66 days of fasting. Nine others would also die from starvation. In 1978 prisoners refused to wear their uniforms in a protest against being stripped of their political status and reclassified as criminals. In response they wrapped themselves in bed sheets. Over time 300 others went "on the blanket". The guards barred the prisoners from toilets as punishment, leading to excrement being smeared on the walls. With the prison now vacant for years, the debate of what to do with the site persists. There are proposals to turn the area into a sports stadium. Others want to erect a conflict resolution centre. Unionists worry it will become a republican shrine. Either way, the plan is to demolish the Maze. Mr Storey would like to see one of the "old cages" preserved as an example of the conditions. Part of the Maze has been rased already. Gen John de Chastelain, the Canadian diplomat who played a key role in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, identifies the site as an enduring problem. "It is an iconic location for paramilitary members who spent time there during the troubles," Gen de Chastelain said. "It is one of a number of issues in which unionists and nationalists are at odds at the moment. Some on the nationalist side want some recognition for those who were prisoners there; some on the Unionist side want no commemoration for what they feel was the deserved punishment." Gregory Campbell, the sports minister for the Democratic Unionist Party, announced in Stormount last month that the decision would be made soon. "I think it is up to Campbell, but of course he will want to have the support of his colleagues, and hopefully, all the parties," Gen de Chastelain said. "I suppose that the question of what it [sports stadium] would be named would be important, and goes back to the issue of memorials." For Mr Storey, the decision is about more than naming. This month the IRA held a reunion dinner in Letterkenny for the escapees of Maze Prison, attended by hundreds of Irish republicans and their families. It was an outpouring of support for a moment of living history. "I feel the struggle is still very much out there," he said. "The guns are gone and the conflict is gone. But the British government is as resistant to a united Ireland as they ever were. We are just as determined. The climate has changed." jtodd@thenational.ae