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6 December 2001 Edition

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Remembering the Past

BY SEAN MacAODH


The daring escape of three prominent republican prisoners from Crumlin Road jail, within weeks of the dramatic escape from the same prison of nine political prisoners, caused serious embarrassment to the Stormont regime in power at the time.

By the autumn of 1971, three months after the introduction of internment in the Six Counties, almost 1,500 internees and political prisoners were being held in Long Kesh and other prisons in the North, over half of them being held at Crumlin Road.

The internees and remand prisoners in the Crum', where there was serious overcrowding, were always on the lookout for that precious chance to escape. An unsuccessful breakout by five prisoners in September 1971 was quickly followed by the dramatic and daring escape of nine remand prisoners (the Kangaroo escape) in mid-November of the same year.

Two weeks later, an escape that was to cause even more embarrassment for the 'authorities' took place. In early November 1971, the British Army regiment, The Green Howards, arrested two prominent republicans in Ardoyne, North Belfast, Martin Meehan and Anthony Doherty. Both were severely beaten and then tortured at Palace Barracks, just outside Belfast. Despite the British Army's wild and spurious claims that both men were responsible for nearly all of the IRA's executions of British military personnel in the Six Counties since 1969, both were interned under the Special Powers Act in Crumlin Road jail.

The IRA escape committee inside the prison, under the direction of the IRA's jail Command Staff, immediately got to work quickly devising an elaborate escape plan. It was decided that the men would conceal themselves in the exercise yard until darkness fell and then escape by scaling the surrounding wall using bed sheets.

In early December 1971, the plan was given the go-ahead and was put into operation. Meehan, Doherty and another republican prisoner, Hugh McCann, concealed themselves in a manhole, up to their knees in water. They remained hidden for five hours until the other prisoners had gone in from exercise. Then, under the cover of darkness and a thick fog that had thankfully settled, they made their daring bid for the prison wall. Using their sheets as a rope ladder, they clambered over and escaped into the surrounding maze of streets. Their comrades inside the prison caused a diversion during the head count so the escapees would not be missed.

To add to Stormont's embarrassment, the media were the first to learn of the escape. Enquiring of locals why there were bonfires burning across Ardoyne, they were told that people were celebrating the escape of Meehan and Doherty. The prison only learned of the escape after the media phoned the jail wondering if the stories on the street were true. To the prison governor's horror - it was.

Brian Faulkner, the Stormont Prime Minister, was infuriated and demanded an immediate inquiry into security at the prison.

Meehan and McCann had by now crossed the border; Doherty remained in Belfast for a couple of weeks and then headed south to join his comrades. During the following years, there were numerous attempts to break out of the Crum'. One, involving 85 political prisoners from C wing of the jail in February 1972, was very nearly successful. The last successful breakout from Crumlin Road Jail occurred in 1981, when eight republican prisoners dramatically escaped from the jail.

It was 30 years ago this week that three prominent republican prisoners dramatically escaped from Crumlin Road Jail, and the IRA dealt the Six-County regime another bitter blow.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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