Sunday Life

In the right ball park
Hunger strike museum may be enough to clinch Maze stadium deal

13 June 2004

THE derelict Maze Prison will be unveiled later this year as the location for Northern Ireland's first national sports stadium - but only after the Government agrees to Sinn Fein demands for a museum on the site.

The disclosure over the £55m project is certain to cause an outcry.

But we can reveal that a series of behind-closed-doors meetings have already set in place a carefully-choreographed programme that will lead to the announcement of the Maze as the preferred site.

The proposal is understood to have the backing of the Sports Council and also the Strategic Investment Board.

Other possible locations like the Titanic Quarter and the north foreshore landfill site - both in Belfast - are already seen as non-runners.

A well-placed source told Sunday Life: "There is, no matter what anyone says, a certain inevitability to this. It now has its own momentum.

"The former Maze Prison will be the location of the national stadium and for a variety of very good reasons, not the least being costs.

"It is Government-owned, has all the infrastructure in place and would, unlike Belfast, be viewed as a neutral environment.

"But the tricky part is the final element and that is something which, I understand, has already been the subject of talks between the Government and Sinn Fein representatives.

"They believe a museum should be erected at the site in memory of the hunger strikers and those interned and jailed throughout the Troubles, which they maintain form a major part of republican history.

"The site is, of course, big enough to accommodate many such proposals."

Our source added: "The Government view, as far as it is known, is that by acceding to the museum proposal it may also be possible to bring on board the GAA as a stakeholder in the stadium."

Ulster Unionist Assembly member Esmond Birney said last night: "This is consistent with rumblings in republican circles.

"But like many people I would find this idea of a museum a rather repellent suggestion."

He also warned that, like so many major projects, costs would undoubtedly escalate.

"It's all very well having a grand political gesture.

"But money has to be used carefully when you are talking about spending so many millions of pounds."

The main tenants of the proposed 30,000-seat stadium would be the Northern Ireland international football team - sharing with other mainstream sports, including rugby and, possibly, GAA.

The sheer size of the site would also allow for the development of state-of-the-art training facilities for a wide range of sports.

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