The site of the Maze prison will have the same symbolic value for world peace as Ground Zero, Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, said yesterday.
“Sites which were previously linked with conflict are more and more being recognised as key components of peace building and reconciliation processes,” he said.
"Examples of this can be seen in Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg [and] the World Trade Centre site in New York." The former Maze prison now has potential as a conflict transformation center, the Deputy Minister went on.
The European Union funded the project.
But the plans for the prison have already seen some political conflict. The Northern Irish government recently shelved a proposal to develop a multi-sports stadium there, following political disputes.
"At a time of a deepening economic crisis the Maze/Long Kesh development, including the multi-sports stadium, had the potential to create between 8,000 and 10,000 jobs," Paul Butler, a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Sinn Fein in Lagan Valley, said in an interview with BBC Northern Ireland earlier this month.
"This has been squandered entirely due to power struggles, personal ambition and petty politics inside the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party).”
Yesterday McGuinness was optimistic about the future development of the former prison, suggesting that “this peace building and transformation project would be recognised as a significant legacy to the European Union's peace investment here.”
The Maze prison has played a long and fraught role in Northern Ireland’s history. Its origins are bound up in the policy of internment, which the Northern Irish government introduced in 1971 in an attempt to deal with growing street violence, and as part of a more general bid to destroy the IRA.
Riots followed as people protested against indefinite imprisonment without trial, but internment remained in place until 1972. In 1980, six prisoners in the Maze went on hunger strike, demanding political status, a campaign that culminated in the death of 27-year old Bobby Sands in May 1981.
In this decade, the Maze prison has been drawn into the peace process. As part of the Good Friday Agreement, 428 prisoners were released from the prison, which was closed by the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2000.
Prisoners, most of whom were republican and Catholic, often recall the brutality and poor conditions at the Maze prison, and some, like Sands, died there; but it is also true that over the years, paramilitaries killed 29 prison staff in all of Northern Ireland’s prisons, including the Maze.
Such history is hard to leave behind, especially at a time when tensions are bubbling up again. In March of this year, IRA dissidents killed two soldiers.
But McGuinness remains hopeful, explaining that the Maze site will come to symbolize the end of the conflict. “We intend to develop the site's economic, historical and reconciliation opportunities to the full," he said.