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Last Updated: Friday, 6 April 2007, 09:15 GMT 10:15 UK
Maze plan 'first political football'

Gareth Gordon
By Gareth Gordon
Political correspondent, BBC Northern Ireland

The Maze Prison and the great stadium debate is one of the first political footballs the new devolved administration in Northern Ireland will have to deal with - and it has just bounced right into the DUP's court.

Plans for the Maze prison site
How the Maze site could look if the plans get the go ahead

Although remaining publicly very supportive, the minister responsible, David Hanson, will wash his hands of it if Stormont returns on 8 May.

Then it is over to the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure, which will be responsible for sport; finance - which controls the purse strings; environment - which controls planning, and ultimately the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister.

And what do all these have in common? DUP ministers at the helm.

It is an issue which holds potential pitfalls for the party.

It is much easier for Sinn Fein - whose price for supporting a stadium at the old prison site is retention of one of the H-blocks and the prison hospital (where the hunger strikers died) as an International Centre for Conflict Transformation.

The DUP have had to swallow that, even though to many of their supporters it will always be known as a "shrine to terrorism".

Then there is the opposition to the Maze location by a sizeable section of the Northern Ireland football team's support - many of them probably DUP supporters as well.

'Endorsement of main parties'

Officially, the party has no stated policy on the Maze. It did not even rate a mention in its manifesto for the assembly election.

Neither has Ian Paisley ever publicly stated his own views on the project.

But, according to Stormont sources, he has told David Hanson that the Lagan Valley MLA Edwin Poots officially speaks for him on the Maze/Long Kesh Regeneration panel which he chairs.

"The government would not have taken this so far but for the endorsement of the four main parties," said one source.

According to the published masterplan, developing the Maze would cost up to 400m, and unless a private sector development partner with deep pockets shares the cost, the project is dead

Edwin Poots has been a very strong advocate of a stadium at the Maze - hardly surprising as it is slap bang in the middle of his constituency.

In recent days, he has been mentioned as a possible DCAL Minister.

The DUP is not saying. But if he was given the job, it would, rightly or wrongly, be taken as a strong signal of its intentions on the Maze.

Either way it is probably now down to money - not personalities.

According to the published masterplan, developing the Maze would cost up to 400m, and unless a private sector development partner with deep pockets shares the cost, the project is dead.

However, there seems to be no shortage of takers. Eight or nine bid consortia responded with initial expressions of interest and these have now been whittled down to a shortlist of four.

One of the infamous H-blocks is to be retained
One of the infamous H-blocks is to be retained

Then it is up to the executive and value for money.

Undoubtedly, it will feature large in discussions between the Northern Ireland parties and the chancellor.

David Hanson had already promised a decision on the stadium before any planning application could be submitted in November.

With the remarkable speed of change at Stormont in the past fortnight the feeling is that devolution could bring that decision forward - maybe even before the summer recess.

Within a fortnight representatives of the three sports which would use the stadium, football, rugby and gaelic games, will be asked to sign off on an updated business plan.

This business plan will then form the basis of individual presentations to the decision-making bodies within the three sports, who will also be given first sight of the concept design of the stadium by designers HOK.

These presentations will probably be completed by early next month.

The sports will then be asked to complete their internal decision-making processes and declare their intention to commit fully to the project and not just in principle as at present.

Of course, none of that will wash with those fans who believe that the stadium should be built in Belfast and that one at the Maze will be a white elephant impossible to get to or away from, and which will be a never-ending drain on the public purse.

Plan includes a new 55m multi-sports stadium
Plan includes a new 55m multi-sports stadium

They argue that the Maze was chosen because it suited the political ends of an unpopular direct rule administration - and had nothing to do with the needs of sport or those who follow it.

Now that it looks like a Stormont executive will make the ultimate decision they must refocus their fire. The DUP, too, must consider the consequences of potentially alienating some supporters.

But they will be well aware that when the so-called "bread and butter" issues were raised on the doorsteps in March it was water charges and rates, not the Maze, that people wanted action on.

As for white elephants, the past few weeks have shown us that pigs can fly.

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