Maze: The prison that is imprisoning us all

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Issues and disagreements over how the Maze prison site should be used going forward are creating a kind of imprisonment for us all, according to a professor at Queen’s University.

Dr Francis Teeney’s commentary on a new blog from Queen’s University called ‘Compromise after Conflict’, says the prison may be closed but its “ghost lives on in the hurt, pain and suffering endured by a society who still have to hold the big debate on guilt, forgiveness, hope and responsibility.”

Read the full blog and comment here.

‘The prison that is imprisoning us all’

Dr Francis Teeney

The argument over the new peace centre at the old Maze/ Long Kesh prison shows no signs of dying down. A little recap for the benefit of readers from outside our wee country may be beneficial to them but it might also help us to remember there is a huge world out there who might not get as perplexed about the issue as we are.

The Maze/ Long Kesh was a prison that housed both Loyalist and Republican prisoners caught up in our political conflict. It was the same prison that interned people without trial in the 1970’s, witnessed a no wash protest by Republican prisoners who wanted political status and not to be treated as ordinary criminals. Ultimately this lead to a hunger strike in which 10 prisoners starved themselves to death – the most widely known was Bobby Sands who got elected as an MP to the British Parliament while fasting to death.

As part of the Good Friday Agreement the prisoners were released early and the prison lay empty for years while the authorities decided what to do with the vast amount of land. A huge national stadium were all sports would be played under the one roof was debated to death before being abandoned.

Recently, however, it was decided that the hospital wing of the prison would form part of a peace centre were people from over the world could come and witness how we brought our political conflict to an end and learned to live together in tolerance and harmony – an idealistic example to the world if only it were true. For far from being at peace we are still at war in our hearts and minds.

Many Unionists are against the peace centre for fear that Republicans will turn it into a shrine to their dead heroes, going so far as to say that guided tours of this part of the complex would be forbidden to mention the name of Bobby Sands or bring flowers to the site were the hunger strikers died. Republicans nearly choked in disbelief. I am not so sure the rest of the world cared much beforehand but maybe this effort at thought control by Unionists might make them curious.

This truncated history of the problem only illuminates that Northern Ireland far from moving on is imprisoned by its past. We are not a beacon for the world as to how conflict can be overcome. Granted we may be able to give some lessons in how to end the war but not in how to win the peace. Like other countries we are struggling with economic hardship, youth migration and political detachment. Yet as a society we are not taking to the streets to protest on social issues yet we are prepared to man the barricades over how we deal with our past – and today’s issue is the Peace Centre at the old Long Kesh/ Maze Prison site. (We cannot even agree on its name so we use both names in some form of an aristocratic double barrelled title).

We are a divided society and we pride ourselves in saying that we have friends who come from the other side of the religious divide as if it was a passport of respectability and a demonstration of our tolerance. Yet through it all we still think differently about the past and how it should be addressed. The Maze/Long Kesh Peace Centre, with a minor part of its attraction a visit to were Bobby Sands and 9 other men died on hunger strike, is but the latest manifestation of division.

Some Unionists have organised a petition against the centre and are indifferent to the foreign tourist interest it might bring. Their hostility is driven by a fear that history may be re- written in favour of their opponents. Republicans on the other hand insist that the contentious facility is a peace centre and its purpose is to tell a narrative in order to avoid conflict. Finding compromise in a post conflict situation such as this is an arduous task.

The outside world will be astounded when they discover that we do not share power but rather divide power. Unionists and Republicans divide up the government departments and run them according to their own party policy. But division is not new to Northern Ireland. Mostly we still live in separate areas, mostly we still educate our children in different schools, mostly we marry people of our religious affiliation and the list of division goes on – even to some ridiculous levels. One Belfast cemetery has a 6 foot wall under the ground with Catholics buried on one side and Protestants on the other. Some of the rural cemeteries are a bit more subtle and have a simple hedge to divide the dead – I suppose just in case people might mix in death. It may be that we will have to divide the new Maze / Long Kesh Peace Centre into zones of influence in order to maintain the status quo of voluntary division that pervades Northern Ireland.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Many of our young people who were too young to remember the worst accesses of our conflict are not really turned on by political divisions. They are interested in real politics such as employment and education. They do socialise in neutral spaces with people from a different religious background – not in great numbers but in significant numbers. They cannot get emotive about the past as they were not affected by it to the same extent as their elders. This leaves many victims feeling even more unheard and not listened too. Therefore the victims can only talk to people of their own generation who very often see the conflict and interpret the solution in terms of orange and green.

Some of our backward looking politicians could be accused of using the victims and the wrongs of the past as a comfort blanket with which to insulate themselves against dealing with issues such as compromise – in doing so they do the victims no favours. And so while the prison of the past might be closed its ghost lives on in the hurt, pain and suffering endured by a society who still have to hold the big debate on guilt, forgiveness, hope and responsibility. We still have to decide how we deal with our past, learn to live together, end segregation and allow peace to be the centre of our lives instead of concentrating on a concrete building of divided historical significance.

Sadly, society cannot force the individual to compromise – that is a personal issue. But we can help victims if only we had the political and societal will. Society is more responsible for the continued imprisonment of victims than it would care to admit. The continued voluntary separation of our people at all levels is a prison cell and lack of positive political leadership the bolt that fastens the door shut – this is the real prison – the prison of the present that incarcerates us all to our past.

And to think the rest of the world thought we had solved the problem!