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28 July  
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2000: Last prisoners leave the Maze
Nearly 80 men imprisoned for terrorist offences have been freed from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland.

The release of the 52 republican and 26 loyalist paramilitaries from the County Antrim jail marks the final phase of the Good Friday peace accord scheme to set free 428 inmates early.

Some of the most prolific bombers and gunmen involved in the Troubles have been imprisoned in the Maze - originally called Long Kesh - since it opened in 1971.

The prison struggle was a microcosm of the larger struggle
Sean Lynch, ex-Maze inmate
One of the freed republicans, Sean Lynch, described what he saw as the real and symbolic importance of the Maze.

"We had achieved the status of political prisoners even if the British Government never admitted it. The prison struggle was a microcosm of the larger struggle," he said.

Founder member of the Ulster Defence Association Thomas McKeown - released in 1990 - was one of over 10,000 loyalists sent to the jail.

He reflected: "We had it pretty easy. We made replica weapons and instruments from wood and conducted military parades and drill every morning. There were also political classes and other sorts of education."

After the H-block hunger strikes of the 1980s there were numerous escape attempts and by 1994 the authorities had given in to many of the prisoners' demands for freedom of association and high levels of autonomy.

A total of 2,700 incidents of officers being threatened or attacked have been reported.

A granite memorial outside the gates bears the names of the 29 prison guards murdered over the past 30 years.

The British and Irish Governments want the 130-acre site closed by January 2001 when the remaining 16 inmates will be moved to nearby Maghaberry Prison.

Redundancy packages have been arranged for staff. These were accepted by 300 who left in June.

The future of the buildings is uncertain, but some republicans want it to be turned into a museum to commemorate their struggle.

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Crowds surrounding door as prisoner leaves
Friends and family greet prisoners freed from the high security Maze prison



In Context
The Maze was closed in September 2000.

In July 2002 the Patten Report on police reform in Northern Ireland recommended the Maze as a training centre for the Northern Ireland Policing Board. A decision - resting with the Northern Ireland Secretary - has still not been made.

Despite the Good Friday peace agreement, sectarian violence continued throughout Northern Ireland.

In July 2005 the IRA finally announced it was ending the armed struggle and would devote itself to resolving the conflict through peaceful means.

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