Prison officers have called for a former jail which held some of Northern Ireland’s most notorious paramilitaries to be bulldozed after proposals to build a peace centre there stalled.
The Maze/Long Kesh - famously the site of the IRA hunger strikes - closed in 2000 when inmates from the troubles were released and unionists and nationalists this week renewed long-standing divisions over what to do with it after initially reaching a consensus.
First Minister Peter Robinson’s Democratic Unionists executed a dramatic U-turn on support for the reconciliation centre amid victims’ fears the violence of 30 years could be glorified.
A watchtower, H-block cell and prison hospital where Bobby Sands starved to death in a 1981 campaign for political status have been preserved but Prison Officers’ Association (POA) chairman Finlay Spratt said they should be razed to the ground.
“From the day the Maze closed in 2000, the Prison Officers’ Association’s view was that it should be bulldozed, the whole site, and turned over to public use,” he said.
“H2 is not an historic building, the administration block is not an historic building.”
Apart from 10 dead hunger strikers, well-known past inmates at the Maze included Billy Wright, who led a loyalist splinter group blamed for a string of sectarian killings. Prominent Sinn Fein assembly member Gerry Kelly famously escaped from the jail in 1983 following his conviction for bombing the Old Bailey.
Sinn Fein, the DUP’s main partners in the mandatory coalition government, have been left incensed by the DUP’s shock move, accusing First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson of caving in to hard-line unionist opinion. Republicans argued the centre can help learn lessons from the past and cited international precedent such as the museum at Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, which is a massive tourist attraction.
Mr Robinson had previously backed the Maze/Long Kesh prison project, despite claims from unionist political rivals, the Orange Order and victims’ groups it could become a shrine to terrorism.
Earlier this year he said some of the centre’s opponents were indulging in “scaremongering rubbish” and should be “taken away by men in white coats”.
Mr Spratt, who represents more than 1,000 officers, said his difficulty was not with a peace centre per se.
“It is the difficulty about why was it established there and why keep the old hospital? That is the nub of the matter, that is where the hunger strikers died.”
He added: “Our view from the outset was that the Maze has such a bad history that we would be better to bulldoze. There should be no glorification of terrorism from whatever side it comes from.”
Mr Robinson’s move was the latest in a line of delays which have dogged developments at the former prison site.
The DUP and Sinn Fein initially approved the Maze development with a deal on a new peace building centre.
Last year, the European Union confirmed £18 million in funding, a development corporation was appointed and the architect who designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin enlisted.
Paperwork surrounding the construction project was almost complete but a pan-unionist campaign against the development drew support from the widows of police officers killed during the troubles and other victims were split on the work.
Mr Robinson this week argued there is not sufficient consensus to proceed with the centre and that his party is prohibiting any public use of the existing H-block and the hospital building where Sands and other hunger strikers died, although not impeding wider economic development creating thousands of jobs.