Guardian Unlimited Politics | Special Reports | Maze keeps Ulster divided

Maze keeps Ulster divided

Plans for the future of a prison which housed notorious paramilitaries were meant to symbolise peace but have generated a furious row

Angelique Chrisafis, Ireland correspondent
Wednesday February 18, 2004
The Guardian

Five snooker balls lay on an abandoned table as pools of mould dripped from the walls of the Maze prison's old hospital wing. A row of cobwebbed air-fresheners did little to disturb the ghosts of republican hunger strikers who died here. Inside an H-block wing, a rusty weight-lifting machine and "Chelsea FC" scrawled on a bookshelf were the only signs of the loyalist paramilitaries who once walked these now freezing corridors.

The bleak 145-hectare (360-acres) site of the Maze prison, which once housed some of Northern Ireland's most notorious paramilitaries, is about to be transformed after lying empty for four years. But the multi-million pound project which was supposed to symbolise the peace process is fast becoming a symbol of the sectarian divide, as a row escalates over what should be built on the site.

At a heated open meeting in Belfast on Monday night, republicans and unionists disagreed over proposals for a museum and one member of the cross-party consultation panel warned that the site could become a "political football".

Developers and the public have until next week to submit their ideas for the Maze. Currently top of the list is a national sports stadium to rival Cardiff's Millennium Stadium and bolster the Northern Ireland football team, which has not scored a goal for two years. Some believe the site could host events in the 2012 Olympics if London wins its bid.

Other suggestions include a motor-racing track, a science park, an international theme park, a housing estate and shopping centre, a wind-farm and a "much needed" Ikea store for Ireland.

But proposals for a museum along the lines of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated in South Africa, have brought allegations that it would be hijacked as a "republican shrine" and provoke resentment in the local predominantly protestant community of Lisburn.

The Sinn Féin councillor and former Maze prisoner, Paul Butler, said the fears were unfounded and a museum would commemorate everyone linked to the Maze, including murdered prison officers. "Whether you like it or not, this is part of the history of this country - 25,000 people were imprisoned here, 15,000 prison officers have worked here. The Red Cross has said this prison had stronger community links than any other prison in the world. You can't deny the past."

But Jeffrey Donaldson, the local Democratic Unionist MP, said his constituency would not condone it: "Not one foot of the site should be used for a museum. The victims of these terrorists will not visit this site. It would be an absolute abomination to them."

Julian Roberston of the Conservative party, said: "I don't think it's realistic to assume [a museum] will be inclusive. Emotions are still too raw."

A republican ex-prisoners group today launches its proposals for a "limited museum" and "remembrance area". The former loyalist prisoner and Progressive Unionist leader, David Ervine, has suggested the prison should be levelled.

While heritage commission ers carry out their assessment, there has been anger that the prison service has been auctioning off chunks of Maze history, including snooker tables for £80. A former governor told the Guardian £10,500 had been made at auction, but mostly from kitchen equipment and staff lockers - "nothing of historical importance".

Even the sports stadium idea caused controversy this week with Sinn Féin's Máirtin Ó Muilleoir warning that a stadium could not be built without the backing of all three main sports - rugby, soccer and Gaelic football. He felt the Gaelic Athletic Association was unlikely to sign up to the site as a permanent home.

Meanwhile, families who were forced to give up their land to the site in 1941 when it was built as a second world war airbase, said they had suffered an "injustice" at being told the government was not legally obliged to hand the land back to them.

The panel chairman, David Campbell, said: "Nothing has yet been ruled in or ruled out". The recommendations will be published this summer.

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