When a damning report into security at Whitemoor prison was published in December 1994 the Prime Minister, John Major, wrote to Home Secretary Michael Howard asking him to change the speech he was due to give in the House of Commons because he wanted him to avoid "defensiveness".
In September 1994 six prisoners — five members of the IRA and a London gangster — escaped from the prison's Special Secure Unit after smuggling a gun into the jail.
"It was a disaster waiting to happen," said Sir John Woodcock in his report into the escape, in which he listed a series of security blunders.
Files released by the National Archives show the behind-the-scenes panic in John Major's Conservative government when the report was published.
Speech Doctored Before Being Given
Howard had sent a draft copy of the speech he was due to make in the Commons to Major, whose private secretary Joan MacNaughton drafted a long reply in which the PM went through it paragraph by paragraph, outlining what he wanted changed.
"The Prime Minister was very concerned that, while it was right that the Home Secretary should express frustration at the mistakes which had been made, he was concerned that this should not be so robust as to topple over into defensiveness," Ms. MacNaughton wrote to Howard.
Major then suggested Howard drop the phrase "deep anger" from paragraph three of the speech and went on to suggest Howard highlighted the fact all six prisoners "were recaptured very swiftly".
The untold story of the 1983 Maze prison breakout— Mick Geen (@J4BenGeen) 18 February 2018
In September 1983, 38 Provisional IRA inmates escaped from the top-security Maze Prison — the biggest jailbreak in Europe since the Second World War. https://t.co/ffabrbDluM
"The Prime Minister was sure it was right that the reference to the systemic weaknesses in the Prison Service should be removed. If it was the case that there systemic weaknesses then Derek Lewis's position was untenable," wrote Ms. MacNaughton.
Derek Lewis, the Director General of the Prison Service, was fired by Howard in 1995 and two years later Howard was grilled by the BBC's Jeremy Paxman in a famous interview in which he asked the Home Secretary the same question — about undermining Derek Lewis — 12 times.
"In paragraph 40….the Prime Minister was concerned that it would not actually be possible to achieve all the Home Secretary was claiming. He was concerned that the wording should be such that it did not come back to haunt the Home Secretary at a later stage," wrote Ms. McNaughton.
The Provisional IRA had declared a ceasefire in August 1994 — which would last until February 1996 — and communications were taking place with the government in an effort to begin the peace process in Northern Ireland which would eventually end with the Good Friday Agreement.
Home Secretary Argued Against Transfer of IRA Prisoners
But the ceasefire did not prohibit IRA members from seeking to escape from custody, even if it meant shooting their way out.
At the same time Howard — who was later to become leader of the Conservative Party — wrote to the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, and told him to delay the transfer of three IRA prisoners — Paul Norney, John McComb and James Canning — from England to Ulster.
"I must consider the impact of transfers on the control of high risk prisoners here. As you will appreciate the publication of Sir John Woodcock's report on the attempted escape by prisoners from HM Prison Whitemoor has had an immediate impact on security considerations. For operational and security reasons I would therefore prefer the next tranche of moves to be considered next year," Howard wrote to Sir Patrick.
“Over a quarter of inmates at high secure prisons said it was easy or very easy to get drugs and of the most recent of these to report, HMP Whitemoor, two fifths (40%) said it was easy or very easy” https://t.co/NhO3yGM1Qh— John Podmore (@John_Podmore) 9 March 2018
Norney was eventually released in 1996 — after 22 years in prison — and on Christmas Day 2012 attacked his wife, Sinn Fein councillor Breige Brownlee, 55, in a drunken rage. Three days later he set her car on fire.
Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire, which had only opened in 1991, has not had another escape since 1994 and remains home to 500 high security prisoners, including dozens of murderers.