The Blanket

Unexplored Maze
Inside the Maze, by Chris Ryder;
reviewed by Anthony McIntyre
first printed Times Literary Supplement, 24.08.01


Having been through four of the North’s prisons coupled with a brief sojourn in one of its training schools – all for IRA activity – I was indeed interested that an author should elect himself as the chronicler of the Northern Ireland Prison Service; someone promising to tell the ‘untold story’. Untold stories in this part of the world are plentiful. And a nod and a wink consensus, crafted across the lines regardless of the embitterment that exists in the trenches of whatever side, ensures that much has remained untold. Are republicans really serious about getting to the bottom of British state collusion in the murder of Francisco Notarantonio? Might it not expose a senior informer in their own midst? Does the British state really want to find the full facts behind ‘the disappeared’? Would that not jeopardise the peace process?

Small wonder that the offer of an ‘untold story’ seems appetising. But like much else posturing as an oasis of truth in a desert of deceit and denial Chris Ryder’s ‘Inside The Maze’ quenched no thirst. Ryder must know from his work on the RUC that the story of that particular body cannot be told by largely focussing on Castlereagh interrogation centre. Nor would it be told by concentrating most emphatically on those the RUC brought to book, killed or tortured. Likewise the Maze Prison and those in its custody tell us much but hardly all about the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

The research strategy employed by the author was to tread the well-beaten path of prison escapes, protests and hunger strikes - all for the most part recorded elsewhere. We are told virtually nothing that is new. The kept rather than the keepers are the central players in the narrative. Yet even this is devalued by the absence of any interviews with prisoners. Ryder compensates for this by inserting lengthy tracts from an IRA document penned by an unnamed prisoner supplemented with an account of daily life within the Maze composed by the former internee Phil McCullough as a contribution to an early 1970s left-wing journal. Conversely, there are interviews with prison staff but the impression is created that these are there to ‘pad out’ and thus conceal the lack of real research conducted on the management ‘side of the house’.

My experience of the Northern Ireland Prison Service would not gel with Ryder’s account. While he concedes the existence of brutality he depicts it as if it were a halting phenomenon rather than it being the ‘natural order’ as far as prison procedure was concerned. The jails of the North were the first places in which I became familiarised with ‘punishment beatings’ – and they were not carried out by the prisoners. Ryder refers to four prison staff all whom lost their lives at the hands of the IRA: Pat Kerr, Brian Armour, Albert Miles and Bill McConnell. He says nothing about the brutality of each individual - experienced first hand by many of us in their custody

A further disturbing feature of this work is the ease with which the author accepts the myth that the prisoners were in some way important to the emergence of the peace process. Greater endeavour would reveal that republican prisoners are on the receiving end of decisions made outside and that the camp leadership since 1983 has been little other than a conduit for such decisions. Those inside have played a crucially important role in the conflict as prisoners but it was never as strategic decision makers.

Furthermore, while the ‘distance reader’ will escape irritation at the litany of errors produced throughout the work – it does not disrupt the flow of the story - those jailed and jailers alike at the coalface will observe that Brendan McFarlene did not have his life sentence remitted prior to being extradited from Holland; Brendan Hughes was not in his fifties when he began the 1980 H-Block hunger strike; the assault on a senior prison officer by a later Gerry Adams bodyguard occurred five years after an Adams escape attempt, not weeks. The first H-Block was completed by 1975 not October 1976 – how otherwise did the H-Block blanket protest begin before October? There are many more errors of this type.

2001, being the twentieth anniversary of the hunger strikes, has naturally created a niche where a small industry of writers and broadcasters hope to flourish by capturing the public imagination. But the public deserves value for money. And in this work Chris Ryder has jumped the gun in a bid to head the pack. A good read on a plane or at a holiday resort. As a serious study the true story has yet to be told. A tale of quantity without quality.

Inside The Maze: The Untold Story of the Northern Ireland Prison Service by Chris Ryder. Methuen. HB £17.99.









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