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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

DUP postpones Maze plans

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

The Democratic Unionist party is to shelve plans for the £100m redevelopment of the Maze prison for at least six months.

The delay is designed to allow time for internal party differences to heal on the issue, specifically on the inclusion of a "conflict transformation centre" in one of the H-blocks. Sinn Féin regards this feature as essential to the project.

The decision will be seen as a rebuke to Edwin Poots, the DUP culture minister, who had set the end of June as a deadline for other proposals. "Edwin has laid himself wide open to a judicial review," a senior DUP source said yesterday.

The prison site is in Poots's Lagan Valley constituency and before he was a minister he chaired a consultation panel, including Sinn Féin representatives, which deliberated for three years. It came up with a development plan that has huge job-creating potential in the area.

The Maze site, a former military airfield, covers 360 acres and was given to the Stormont executive by the British government as part of the peace dividend, with the intention it be used to develop leisure and cultural activities.

Apart from the conflict transformation centre and a 35,000- seat stadium, the Maze development would have an international exhibition centre, equestrian centre, public park and housing, as well as showgrounds replacing Balmoral as the new home of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society. It would be connected to the Dublin/Belfast line by a rail link and to the M1 motorway by a junction.

It is hoped this ease of access would encourage visitors from both Belfast and Dublin. The GAA, the Irish Football Association and the Irish Rugby Football Union have all agreed to hold top matches at the stadium in what amounts to an ambitious ground-sharing deal.

The conflict transformation centre would take up only a corner of the development site. Supporters say it would be an attraction to rival Kilmainham jail in Dublin and Alcatraz in San Francisco bay.

Ian Paisley, the DUP leader and first minister, has backed the stadium, but has yet to comment on the conflict transformation centre. He and Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister, have the power to veto it. The latter is adamant it must proceed.

One of the H-blocks, a stretch of the perimeter fence, a watchtower and the hospital block have been declared listed buildings. This protects them from demolition. However, Arlene Foster, another DUP minister, has the power to remove this status and have the blocks demolished, along with the rest of the prison.

The conflict transformation centre is seen by some in the DUP as a price worth paying for the rest of the development, and some privately agree it could become a valuable tourist attraction. Only one of the centre's wings would be dedicated to republican prisoners. Others would be devoted to loyalists and other offenders, while the central control room would be given over to the story of prison officers.

The hospital, which is bound to focus on the story of Bobby Sands and the other republican hunger strikers, is the most contentious section. Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA prisoner in the H-blocks who is now a historian, said: "It should be a centre of learning. This centre should be about the impact of the hunger strike, not just the story of one side."

Frankie Gallagher, a representative of the Ulster Political Research Group, which is linked to the Ulster Defence Association, said the centre would only be acceptable if all "combatants including the RUC and loyalists as well as the IRA" were remembered there.

Some opponents argue the stadium should be built in Belfast, but Paisley has ruled out alternative plans.

Yesterday, McGuinness said the project must proceed in its entirety. He told the BBC that "if the stadium doesn't go on the Maze/Long Kesh site, there isn't going to be a stadium".

He said the former jail was a project of international importance. "I would be shocked if any minister in the executive thought it was a good idea to de-list the buildings," he said. "It would run totally contrary to everything we are trying to do in terms of attracting people to our country and to learn from what is clearly a whole new experience for us."

July 8, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on July 8, 2007.