A row has erupted between unionist politicians over plans that could see the former Maze prison buildings opened up to tourists.
Redevelopment of the derelict 347-acre site near Lisburn – where 10 republican prisoners died on hunger strike at the prison in the early 1980s – has been a bone of contention for several years.
Unionists have fiercely opposed plans for the creation of a Peace Building and Conflict Resolution, fearing it could become a shrine to IRA terrorists.
But those behind the proposal – the Maze Long Kesh Development Corporation (MLKDC) – have scrapped their plans for the centre and said they are now focusing on delivering a “much broader strategy” for the site.
According to former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, one aspect of this revised strategy includes guided tours around the infamous H blocks – which housed some of the most notorious paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles – and the prison hospital where the hunger strikers died.
The Strangford MLA said that while he endorsed the move, he stressed: “It would have to be done incredibly sensitively and with no hint of the glorification of terrorism.”
However, TUV leader Jim Allister has blasted Mr Nesbitt’s remarks as “baffling” and warned there would be no way to prevent the buildings from becoming “a Mecca for terror tourism”.
Only one of the H-blocks – known as H-6 – remains standing, alongside the former prison chapel and hospital wing.
Speaking to BBC’s Nolan Show yesterday, Mr Nesbitt said he believed the listed buildings should be opened up to tourists, adding: “I think there is certainly merit in young people going down those corridors and looking in those tiny cells.
“If we are going to learn from the mistakes of the past and ensure we don’t repeat history, then there is merit in it.”
While he endorsed the plans, Mr Nesbitt said he was “nervous” about the prospect of opening up the listed prison buildings to the public and warned that such a move must be done in a “sensitive” and “entirely neutral” way.
“For example, people would be taken into the prison hospiatl facility, but they will not be told in which room Bobby Sands passed away,” he added.
But North Antrim MLA and European election candidate Mr Allister hit back, saying: “The idea that people are going to be taken into the prison hospital but not told in which room Bobby Sands died so that it is ‘entirely neutral’ is utter nonsense.”
Mr Allister accused the UUP of a u-turn over the Maze site, adding: “In a very short space of time the UUP have moved from warning of the dangers associated with a potential Mecca for terror tourism to salesmen for just such a project.
“The campaign against the shrine at the Maze united unionism from all backgrounds. It would seem that the UUP have now joined the cheerleaders for the opening up of a shrine to terrorism.”
Replying to Mr Allister’s remarks, UUP European candidate Danny Kennedy was adamant that the party’s position on the Maze “has not changed”.
The former MLA added: “The Ulster Unionist Party welcomes the decision by the MLK Development Corporation to scrap plans for the Peace Building and Conflict Resolution Centre at the Maze Prison site. This includes ending the prospect of any potential terrorist shrine. There is no reason why the buildings should be retained.”
The proposed peace centre was first given the green light by planners back in 2013, but stalled after the DUP withdrew its support.
The MLKDC – which has statutory responsibilty for the regeneratiion of the site – said it has been working to identify options for the location that would secure widespread backing.
Chairman Terence Brannigan said the board have developed an updated strategy aimed at attracting cross-community and political agreement over the future of the Maze site.
He added: “The Peace Building and Conflict Resolution, which had been part of the original proposals for the site, has been recognised as a potential barrier due to a number of factors, including the withdrawal of EU funding and the lapsing of planning permission.
“Given the inclusion or otherwise of any such facility is purely a matter for Ministers, our board has set this element aside and focussed on developing a much broader strategy to realise the full potential of the Maze Long Kesh site.”
Mr Brannigan also claimed the redevelopment could act as a catalyst for the delivery of around £800m investment and up to 14,000 jobs.
On Thursday, a spokesperson for the Executive Office said any decision regarding the future development of the Maze site “would be a matter for ministers”, adding: “No decisions have been taken.”