On Thursday, Northern Ireland’s Environment Minister Alex Attwood formally gave the green light for the historic Maze Prison to be repurposed into a peace center with help from a European grant.
Despite the go-ahead, controversy is expected as some believe that the new site may turn into an “IRA shrine” rather than present an unbiased look at the era of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Ten republican prisoners, including Bobby Sands, died at Maze Prison following a hunger strike in 1981. Two years later, the IRA staged the biggest prison escape in British penal history.
In his announcement of the go-ahead, Minister Attwood said, “I have today granted permission for the proposed centre. There is learning to be taken from the conflict here. The center can contribute to sharing this learning and perhaps to help inform the resolution of conflict in other places.”
Daniel Libeskind, who helped rebuild Ground Zero in NYC after 9/11, will help redesign Maze Prison into the peace center. The 350 acre site is just off one of the main motorways leading into Belfast.
Of his involvement, Libeskind told the Irish Independent, "It is truly meaningful to build a hope-filled common ground, to tell individual stories and to do so in Maze Long Kesh."
The Irish Times reports that former prison buildings, including the hospital block where the hunger strikers died, are being retained on the site, although they will not form part of the peace center.
“I believe that good planning needs good design,” said Attwood. “That is certainly the case in the design of the Centre created by Daniel Libeskind, a world leader in architecture and a friend of Northern Ireland.”
Maze Prison officially closed in 2000 as part of the Good Friday Agreement which was signed in 1998. Since then, there has been on-going debate as to what the site should be used for.
Unionist opposition blocked plans for a multi-sports stadium for soccer, gaelic football and rugby.
The Royal Ulster Agricultural Society (RUAS) has agreed to relocate to the site, where it will host its annual show.
Attwood also said on Thursday, “This will play a significant part in meeting a target of the EU funding program and I am determined to continue making major planning decisions speedily and accurately and making a planning system more fit to achieve its purpose.”
The proposed peace center is already already sparking controversy. UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said: "We believe the story of the Troubles needs to be told, but we are convinced that the site of the former Maze prison is absolutely the wrong location. As a location it places an undue emphasis on prisoners rather than victims.”
"How can the families of the victims of the Troubles, plus the families of those who served in the RUC, UDR [Ulster Defence Regiment] and regular army be expected to organise a family day out to see the site where terrorists were held? The Maze prison is not a shared space. The unionist community has no emotional capital invested in it and would shed no tears if all traces of the prison were to be removed from the face of the Earth."
Stormont’s First Minister Peter Robinson praised the new plans and viewed them as a boost for local economy: "Already the redevelopment of this site is helping to grow our local economy and stimulate job creation particularly initially in the construction industry. Already there are nine local construction companies and 24 local supply companies engaged with the site.
"The ongoing construction of Balmoral Park for use by the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society has been widely welcomed and the Executive will continue to work with other organisations to ensure a positive future for the site.
"The construction of a new purpose-built Peace-building and Conflict Resolution Centre will help strengthen and consolidate our peace-building expertise and help us share our peace-building experience with others across the world."
Similarly, Stormont’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said, “This is an important stage in delivering a world-class Peace-building and Conflict Resolution Centre at the Maze/Long Kesh site by 2015.
"The Maze/Long Kesh site has the potential for significant job creation and private sector investment, assessed at 5,000 jobs and £300 million investment.
"The Peace-building and Conflict Resolution Centre alone could support 70 additional jobs and generate approximately £1 million per annum from visitor income and employment.
"The new centre will send out a powerful signal to the international community that we are building a brighter, better and shared future together."