This week marked the end of an era with the release of more than 80 republican and loyalist prisoners from the Maze Prison under the terms of the Good Friday agreement. The handful remaining behind its walls and barbed wire will be moved and/or freed within the coming months. So it is that the gates of this prison, which republicans referred to simply as H-blocks, will shut forever, leaving only the empty cells with all their ghosts.
The prison joins others as a shaper of Irish history, including Kilmainham, Mountjoy, the Curragh, and Crumlin Road.
Prisons have always found themselves at the center of the Irish conflict and what has happened behind their austere and forbidding walls has profoundly influenced the course that events have taken beyond them.
It is undoubtedly true that what happened in the Maze in the period 1976-1981 changed forever the course of Irish history. The foolish attempt by the British government to treat republican inmates as "ordinary" criminals — as part of its so-called "Ulsterization" program — instead turned the republican movement into a dynamic political force, one that is now part of the North’s government. The long blanket and dirty protest, culminating in the hunger strikes of 1981 that left 10 republican prisoners dead, effectively created modern Sinn Fein as a political party.
The Maze should be kept as a reminder to future British governments of the follies of the past in the hope that they will not be repeated in the future.
In the meantime, the closing of its gates and emptying of its cells has been greeted with a mixture of gratitude and gall. Gratitude that the closure will bring an end to a horrifying period of Irish history, and gall that those freed include men guilty of horrendous crimes that in most normal societies would ensure they would never enjoy liberty for the rest of their natural lives.
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Consider that just three of those released this week were responsible for the deaths of at least 26 men, women and children — for the most part ordinary Catholics and Protestants. But Northern Ireland was not a normal society. This is evident by the fact that the vast majority of those who went through the Maze during its 24-year history would probably have never seen the inside of a prison had they been born in the United States, France or England.
The settlement reached in April 1998 recognizes this reality. However brutal, the violence in Northern Ireland was not criminally motivated in the usual sense of that word. It was the refusal to recognize this reality that brought about the prison crisis of the late 1970s in an attempt to prove that men like Bobby Sands could be treated as if they were commonplace gangsters. Whatever one thinks of them morally, the IRA, UDA and UVF, different as they were from each other, were united in that they were all shaped by the currents of the Irish conflict rather than by ordinary criminal ambitions.
The loved ones of those who died at the hands of the men now walking free will not be easily reconciled to this gesture by definitions about "ordinary" vs. "political" crime. Without doubt, they have been denied justice. Nothing that anyone can say will change that fundamental fact. However, their sacrifice will mean, it is to be hoped, that a peace settlement has been secured that will last and prevent further bloodshed so that a generation from now other grieving relatives will not have to endure the suffering being inflicted upon them.