Maze Prison (nicknamed “Long Kesh”) was one of the most terrible prisons in Northern Ireland in the history of the island of Ireland. A symbol of the British occupation, it was the place of detention for many Republicans, Loyalists, and innocent Northern Irish victims of the conflict between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Many prisoners perished in this prison, including the notorious Bobby Sands.
1921: Ireland signs a treaty with England and officially proclaims itself as an independent state. In return, England demands the annexation of the 6 counties of Northern Ireland, thus cutting the island into 2 distinct zones: the free south and the north occupied by the British. In spite of the scandal and the civil war caused by this Treaty, this situation will stagnate until today, leaving the North in the hands of the English, barbed wire and armoured tanks, under a climate of extremely intense tension.
So it was in 1971 that the Long Kesh prison was created. The London government launched a vast “securitization” plan allowing British soldiers to imprison without trial any opponent of the British occupation in Northern Ireland. In order to park these prisoners, they chose a former disused Royal Air Force base in the village of Maze. Thus the Long Kesh prison was born.
The first wave of prisoners was rounded up during a military operation known as Operation Demetrius. No less than 452 men from the Catholic quarters of Belfast were then parked without further explanation in the Maze prison. They were crammed into what were known as the H-Blocks, high security cell blocks in the shape of an H. At that time, the prison was above all an illegal place of detention, as it was unofficial, and in no way respected the rights of its inmates.
The Maze prison did not become an official prison until the end of the 1970s, when London found it necessary to further formalise its actions. However, the quality of detention was not improved for the prisoners, who began to chain the protests through a struggle: the “Blanket and No-Wash Protest“. This struggle consisted of refusing to wear a prisoner’s uniform and wrapping themselves naked in a simple blanket, while at the same time carrying out a real hygiene strike. Thus, the detainees protested in the simplest apparatus, in a filthy environment where the walls were covered with excrement and the floor with urine.
After a few unsuccessful hunger strikes, it was in 1981 that Bobby Sands, an IRA leader, decided to go on an unprecedented hunger strike. His message was then very clear: he would refuse to eat until Margareth Thatcher had recognized more rights for the de Maze prisoners. Bobby Sands even says he is ready to die for this cause, and intends to rally other hunger strikers to him, who will follow him in his footsteps after his death.
A long arm wrestling match between the Northern Irish Republicans and the London government began. This strike provoked a general outcry throughout the world, indignant at the British attitude, which remained impassive. Despite political pressure from various countries, Margaret Tatcher remains silent, leaving Bobby Sands and his cell mates to die in chains after an excruciatingly painful fast in May 1981.
These deaths amplified the tensions and clashes between British soldiers and the Northern Irish. In order to show its good will, the London government tries to gradually ease the conditions of detention of the prisoners. They ended up regrouping the prisoners in H-Blocks according to their para-military affiliation, and granted them more autonomy.
Many are released as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, and Long Kesh closes its doors after releasing the last prisoners. A few years later it was announced that the prison would be demolished. Some former prisoners decided to revisit the place, and visit the infirmary where Bobby Sands died for the Northern Irish cause.