Two years after the epic 1981 H-Block Hunger Strike in which ten young republicans died, there was another epic event at Long Kesh that dealt a huge blow to the Thatcher regime in Ireland. This was the escape of thirty-eight IRA prisoners from H-Block 7 on Sunday 25 September 1983.
At 2:15pm that day, three prisoners, carrying concealed pistols fitted with silencers and which had been smuggled into the prison, moved into the central administration area of H-Block 7 on the pretext of cleaning out a store. They were joined by four others who took up key positions covering prison officers (or ‘Screws’, as the prisoners called them) stationed beside alarm buttons. Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane (IRA Officer Commanding in the H-Blocks during the Hunger Strike) was allowed through two locked grilles on cleaning duties; his job was to arrest the prison officer there.
When a signal was given, the IRA prisoners overpowered and arrested all the Screws, whose uniforms were then donned by a number of the prisoners. Complete control of H-Block 7 was gained when ‘Bik’ McFarlane, with two prisoners dressed as Screws, arrested the officer on duty at the front gate enclosure. When the food lorry arrived, 37 prisoners climbed into the back while the 38th lay on the floor of the cab, covering the driver with a gun.
The food lorry was then driven through a series of security gates in full view of prison guards and British Army watchtowers. (The use of the food lorry led to the most memorable wall slogan celebrating the escape: “Open up the Long Kesh gate – Meals on wheels for 38!”)
The lorry arrived at a first ‘tally hut’, where the plan was to take control, arrest all the Screws, leave prisoners in charge and drive the lorry on to the front gate ‘tally hut’ and then out of the prison to freedom. However, there was a larger number of Screws than anticipated at the first hut, where others were coming on and off duty; the escapers could not control them all and the alarm was raised.
Now unable to use the lorry, the prisoners made a dash for freedom across the fields, some of them commandeering vehicles. Of the 38 prisoners who broke out, 19 were recaptured but 19 got clean away.
In an interview in An Phoblacht/Republican News at the time, the IRA described the escape:
“We perceived the escape as a military operation from beginning to end. It could not have been achieved in any other way, and the Active Service Unit – as Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army – were under strict orders throughout from an operations officer whose judgement was crucial and whose every order had to be obeyed.”
A number of the 19 escapers later died on active service with the IRA while others were extradited back to prison in the six counties. The escape remains one of the most significant IRA operations of the entire conflict. Thatcher described it as “the gravest in our prison history”. Lord Colville, a senior British judicial figure, stated:
“One cannot fail to admire the competence of an organisation which enables the prisoners of war to bring to fruition an escape plan which, apart from last-minute calamities, was largely successful.”