26/09/2008

BBC 'Maze Escape' Prompts US Controversy

A leading DUP politician was caught up in a US 'peace' award row this week as his Sinn Fein's NI Executive colleague's past was thrown into focus.

Stormont Junior Minister Jeffrey Donaldson (pictured left, with Gerry Kelly) was due to accept a trophy in New York - but after a controversial BBC TV programme chronicling the 1983 Maze prison mass escape and the associated death of a prison officer, he announced he would not be taking part in the handover ceremony alongside his fellow Junior Minister, Gerry Kelly.

During the documentary on Monday night, Gerry Kelly - the former Sinn Fein policing and justice spokesman - recalled how during the escape he had shot a prison officer.

On the BBC documentary Mr Kelly said he used a gun smuggled into the top security jail as part of an escape plan involving 38 IRA prisoners.

A prison officer who was stabbed during the escape later died, while others were injured.

The two Ministers were in the USA to undertake a series of engagements with the highlight being the receipt of the Peace Dove Award on Wednesday evening when they both addressed the Co-Operation Ireland dinner in New York.

The Award is presented annually to an honoree(s) who has been involved in peace work and/or the peace process.

Gerry Kelly said of the award: "We are on a journey out of conflict and division and other countries across the world can learn from us. Our message to our friends in the US is that through courage and dialogue the most intractable of problems can be overcome."

However, a spokesman for the DUP told the Belfast News Letter on Thursday that Mr Donaldson was to speak at the high profile dinner in New York along with Junior Minister Gerry Kelly, and was also scheduled to take part in a number of other engagements with Mr Kelly in New York, but had refused to collect the award.

A spokesman for Sinn Fein confirmed to 4ni.co.uk on Thursday afternoon that Mr Donaldson didn't in fact accept the award.

The spokesman said that both the NI Executive and Invest NI had put substantial "monies" into the staging of the event and that Mr Donaldson had "made a fool of himself" by refusing to accept the honour.

The evening was Co-Operation Ireland's major fundraising and publicity event for the year, attended by nearly 300 prominent guests.

Speaking at the event was former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who is a new member of the Board of Directors of Co-operation Ireland.

Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, also participated in the programme.

The BBC screened the programme, 'Breakout', again last night, Thursday, despite unionist outrage at what they have claimed in a piece of IRA propaganda.

The corporation has also defended its programme saying it was a "fair and impartial" account of what took place that day.

(BMcC)

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