Daily Ireland

Gulags to GAA

Bobby Sands predicted that the “laughter of our children” would be the epitaph of the H-Block hunger strikers. Even he could hardly have envisaged a day when the H-Blocks would give way to a world-class stadium crammed to capacity for the gladiatorial clash of Ireland’s greatest hurlers and footballers.
That’s exactly the mouth-watering prospect served up to sports fans in the blueprint for the Maze-Long Kesh site which will be unveiled tomorrow. It would have been a brave person indeed back in the throes of the H-Block agony in 1981 who would have dared suggest we might someday move from gulags to GAA.
And that’s only half of the dream plan for the site that once epitomised conflict and anguish. The proposals to be endorsed tomorrow by the four main parties in the North also sign off on a pioneering conflict transformation centre and heritage site. Central to that development will be the H-Block hospital where the ten hunger strikers died, a H-Block, a watchtower and part of the perimeter wall as well as one of the internee ‘cages’.
Public access will enable visitors, from home and abroad, to visit the one-time crucible of conflict and to make their own mind up about what happened there.
On paper at least, we’ve come a long way from the proposal by the ‘no-men’ of unionism that the entire site be bulldozed. Rather than trying to bury the past, the refusniks should join the rest of us in trying to use the history of Long Kesh to build into the future.
All of this of course, could be just so much pie in the sky. There is the very real danger that rather than being a testament to the great unifying nature of sport here, the stadium, and indeed, the entire site, will be hijacked by the red, white and blue brigade who, with their flags and apartheid policies on the local council, have brought shame to Lisburn.
Similarly, there could be foot-dragging and bad faith on the proposals for a peace zone. Or the GAA may refuse to endorse the project on the basis that their own facilities are sufficient for their needs, thanks very much all the same. There are also very real worries about the decision to site a showcase stadium ten miles outside Belfast when best practice in urban regeneration throughout the western world is to bring stadiums into the heart of cities.
Of this we are sure: the days when the GAA or the nationalist community could be ignored when creating a flagship facility in the North of Ireland are long gone. In fact, if the stadium isn’t used as a national stadium rather than a six county venue, it’s doomed to failure. The implementation of the plan, bringing peace zone and stadium to fruition simultaneously, doesn’t leave space for any hurlers on the ditch. All those who want to see the stadium become a shared facility need to get to work now if the report of the Maze-Long Kesh panel isnt to gather dust on some bureaucrat's desk.

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