Victims’ group urges no U-turn on plans for former Maze Prison site

A prominent victims’ group has urged against any “U-turn” on plans for the site of the former Maze Prison in Co Antrim.

The South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF) made the appeal after First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that she and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly will meet the board of the development corporation tasked with transforming the Maze/Long Kesh to discuss a way forward.

There had previously been a proposal for a peace centre at the site of the former paramilitary prison, where one of the distinctive H-blocks and a hospital wing still stand.

The former prison only compromises part of the 347-acre site near Lisburn that falls under the remit of the Maze Long Kesh Development Corporation, established in 2011.

While there has been some development, most significantly the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society becoming an anchor tenant and moving the annual Balmoral Show to the venue, the wider transformation of the site has been stalled for more than a decade.

The Ulster Aviation Society and the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance also operate out of the site.

The full regeneration plan hit the buffers in 2013 when former DUP first minister Peter Robinson blocked efforts to build a peace centre as part of the redevelopment of the sprawling grounds, which once housed the high-security jail and were gifted to the Northern Ireland Executive by the UK Government.

The prison held paramilitary inmates during the Troubles and was the location for republican hunger strikes in 1981 in which 10 died, including Bobby Sands.

A view of the former H Block Maze prison at Long Kesh
The former H Block Maze prison at Long Kesh near Lisburn (Niall Carson/PA)

Mr Robinson’s move came amid unionist concerns about the symbolism of building a peace centre on the site of the prison.

A political impasse has continued since. In 2019 the corporation said it was setting aside the peace centre plan as it focused on progressing the wider redevelopment.

Ms O’Neill described the site as having “great potential in itself” but also as an “economic driver, not just for Lagan Valley, but for the whole region”.

She added: “We must build on the common ground that we all share and that is to realise the potential of the site for the benefit of all and we are absolutely committed to working with the development corporation to achieve that.”

“I want to see the site developed in the same way that we have seen with the regeneration of other sites, particularly if you look at the Ebrington site (in Londonderry) and the Crumlin Road Gaol (in Belfast),” she said.

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“You can see all those things that have opened up to be really inclusive spaces and are the building blocks for a shared society, so in terms of the next steps, the deputy First Minister and I have accepted an invitation to meet the board to take stock of the current position, to hear their thoughts on the development of a roadmap for the site. And that’s going to inform how we proceed.

“The scale of the investment will be huge for sure, but the cost of doing nothing is even greater.”

Kenny Donaldson, director of SEFF, said they also want to see the economic and social regeneration of that space, providing new jobs and prosperity.

But he cautioned: “This cannot and must not include any political U-turn on a Peace/Conflict Transformation Centre which would also include the listed hospital buildings of the former prison.

“The innocent victims/survivors of terrorism have been consistently opposed to such a development and it is they who are the core stakeholder to be taken into account.”

He called for a commitment from parties to “not betray innocent victims/survivors of terrorism”.

“The former Maze Prison and connected hospital buildings is Northern Ireland’s Spandau Prison, it is a site which will never command support from victims/survivors for such a project to advance,” he added.