In the newly published third volume of academic and author Seán McConville's comprehensive history Irish Political Prisoners, 1960–2000, McConville offers in his words, 'a comprehensive, detailed and humane account of the thousands who came into custody during the years of the Northern Ireland conflict, and how they lived out the months, years and decades in Irish and English maximum-security prisons'.

Below, the author introduces an extract from the book, recounting the notorious Maidstone breakout of 1972...


I have tried to provide a complete account of imprisonment during the thirty and more years of The Troubles and have assumed that many readers will have only a sketchy knowledge of modern Irish history. The political, legal, organisational framework of those years have therefore been set out in as much detail as is practical.

By itself this could have made for a tedious narrative. But I believe that the book is animated by the hundreds of human stories that we have stitched together.

Here (from more than 1000 pages) is a short extract.

On The Maidstone Escape: Staff come on duty and attend to their work with varying levels of commitment and energy. But no matter how engaged, prisoners can be even more attentive to their surroundings. It is true that many prisoners accept their lot and concentrate on hopes of release and easing the humdrum routine of their prison. Others probe for weaknesses in security and staffing. The escape from the Maidstone is the stuff of an overwritten Hollywood action drama and made internment look more than a bit ridiculous.

With well-guarded moorings, troops billeted on board, barbed-wire entanglements in the surrounding water, and the low temperature, tides and currents of winter in Belfast Lough, the Maidstone seemed to offer few escape prospects.

Security was considered so tight that when, on 9 January 1972, three tunnels were discovered at Belfast Prison, several high-risk men were transferred to the ship as a precaution. Yet experience teaches that an uncritical confidence in high levels of physical security has its own dangers. Unless challenged by spot inspections, and exercises, it can reinforce a default state of complacency and lead to laxity in enforcing control procedures. Why, after all, if a place is escape-proof, waste time and irritate the prisoners through zealousness in the implementation of precautions and routines? And even the most dedicated prison officer, with slow-moving shift hours behind and ahead, may drift into a state of reverie about life beyond the landings, gates and bars: protracted concentration and alertness can be difficult to maintain, in any case. While many prisoners may be prone to much the same processes of mental drift as disengaged staff, some never cease to watch, calculate and wonder. This is not confined to speculation about escapes, and, indeed, the greater part is likely to be about goods, services and miscellaneous advantages. But through close and persistent scrutiny, chinks in the arrangements and buildings, or weaknesses and blind spots in staffing, may be spotted. This alertness may be raised several times over by prisoners who are organised, systematic and committed, who pool knowledge and ponder it with forensic intensity. Combine this with outside resources and one has the imagining and making of escapes. And, indeed, such observations and preparations had been in train for several weeks before the Maidstone breakout of Monday, 17 January 1972. The trigger may have been the transfer of fifty men to Magilligan the previous day. This raised the possibility of a complete evacuation and the waste of the preparations that had already been made. The plan was that seven men, all strong swimmers, should go over the side at about 4.00 p.m., allowing time to swim ashore in the murk of a midwinter evening. An onshore reception party would provide clothing and warming soup and means of transportation. Restored and in warm dry clothing, the escapees would then leave the area with dockers coming off shift. The men would be dispersed to safe houses and then, fairly speedily, got over the border and into the Republic.

As with many ingenious and meticulously organised affairs, events intervened. Timings were dependent on the ship's routine. The last headcount of the day took place at 4.00, after which there was lockdown and the main evening meal.

Headcount had to be repeated that day because of a tallying error, and the escapers consequently did not manage to leave until 6.00 p.m. This was potentially disastrous, since with such a long delay those waiting on shore assumed that the escape had not taken place or had been unsuccessful. The police would almost certainly come looking for accomplices and it would be reckless to linger. In the meantime, the escapers had swum beyond the barbed-wire entanglements.

This was pure Hollywood drama, and it would be a gross understatement to say that it was an embarrassing blow to the Stormont government's credibility.

The men had previously sawed through the bars guarding the portholes but left them in place, held by only a sliver of metal. They had blackened their bodies, to help them fade into the darkness. Stripped to their underpants, coated with butter and with gloves on hands and feet offering some kind of protection, the seven entered the water. It was a calm night for the swim of about a quarter of a mile across the Musgrave Channel to Queen's Island. This took between twenty and forty minutes. Once ashore and reassembled, the men discovered that their transport had come and gone. A bus waiting at its terminus, presumably for those still to come off shift, served as a fallback. The driver was overcome, and Peter Rodgers, a former bus driver, drove them all away. They encountered a docks policeman who attempted to block them but who jumped aside when they showed no signs of stopping. It was a short drive into the Nationalist Markets area, and thence, using the car of a sympathetic barman, to Andersonstown – another strongly Nationalist area. After a cool-off wait of four or five days, the men were taken across the border. On Monday, 24 January, the customary press conference followed, with the "Magnificent Seven" by their mere presence confirming that Republican grit and ingenuity were still in play. It was a hugely effective pay-off.

This was pure Hollywood drama, and it would be a gross understatement to say that it was an embarrassing blow to the Stormont government’s credibility. The failure of the subsequent army and police searches underlined the escapers’ audacity and derring-do and sprinkled additional glory and schadenfreude over the stunt. Mop-up and retrieval operations got nowhere, further suggesting panic and bumbling. The getaway bus was found in the Markets area where a cordon was established and an unofficial curfew was imposed until the following morning. House-to-house searches were conducted, with the usual friction. Beyond the Markets cordon, main routes out of Belfast were blocked by up to 1,000 troops and police, checking vehicles and identities. Many parts of the city experienced long traffic delays, some extending to several hours. The political significance of the escape was measured by these logistics.

The inquiry that followed uncovered much that was troubling. In essence (and it was surely self-evident), the Maidstone was insufficiently secure, and its staffing and control procedures were inadequate. More worrying was the shift in working-class Catholic attitudes that the escape had thrown up. Earlier IRA campaigns of the 1940s and 1950s may have been accompanied by some residual sympathy for escapees, but this was for the most part poke-in-the-eye enjoyment at the discomfiture of the Unionist establishment rather than specific support for Republicanism. The unhesitating manner in which the ordinary Markets area population sheltered the escapees, and the steps that were taken to get them away, denoted a significant shift: there was trust on both sides. This assistance may not have been an active and knowing involvement in IRA activities, but it confirmed that those who escaped internment need have no fear about their reception in Nationalist areas. Doors would be open, and helping hands would pass them along the line. Army intelligence on and from the Markets was so poor that, three days after the escapees had left it, searching was still going on. There also had to be concern about the freedom that the escapees enjoyed once over the border. The fact that there was no internment in the Republic, that the general population took the view that Northern internment was reserved for Catholics and was unfair in many other ways – all this was sealed after Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972). The agitated state of Southern public opinion meant that, provided they did not embarrass the Irish government or local police, fugitive IRA men were left alone. This would be another escape inducement.

Irish Political Prisoners 1960-2000: Braiding Fury and Sorrow by Séan McConville is published by Routledge in hardback and e-editions - find out more here.