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Last Updated: Monday, 16 February, 2004, 16:21 GMT
Maze of ideas for jail's future

By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

It is the size of a small town and has a notorious reputation. One of its most famous inmates was republican hunger striker Bobby Sands, and it was there too that the INLA shot dead leading loyalist Billy Wright.

Now a few cats are the only inhabitants of the Maze prison in County Antrim - a casualty of the peace process.

But it is about to get a new lease of life, as the Prison Service prepares to hand over the land and buildings to the office of the first and deputy first minster.

The site spans a remarkable 360 acres. One option is to preserve part of the old H-block prison wings as a museum - although it is likely to be controversial.

One option is to preserve part of the old H-blocks
One option is to preserve part of the old H-blocks

Local residents are not keen on the idea and the Progressive Unionist Party's David Ervine has suggested the old prison should be levelled.

Sinn Fein favours the museum idea, in line with similar projects, not least Kilmainham jail in Dublin, which is now a popular tourist attraction.

It was there that the leaders of the 1916 Easter rising were imprisoned and shot. Robben Island in South Africa - where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated - is also now a museum.

'Historic significance'

A Maze consultation panel has been set up, with members nominated by the political parties and headed by Ulster Unionist David Campbell.

The vice-chair is Michael McKernan, an SDLP appointment. The panel is gathering ideas to regenerate the site, which could be used for economic or social development, housing or leisure.

"What we have here is a huge strategic site - nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out," said Mr McKernan.

The panel will report to NIO minister Ian Pearson
The panel will report to NIO minister Ian Pearson

He said he would be surprised if the historic significance of the site was not preserved in some way.

However, he points out that a Maze museum would only take up two out of 360 acres. "It's nearly the size of a small town - it's a huge opportunity," he said.

On Monday evening, a public meeting took place in Belfast's King's Hall, the last major meeting before the consultation process closes at the end of the month.

In May, the panel will report to NIO minister Ian Pearson with its recommendations.

'Scarce resources'

Another proposal involves a national stadium, which in principle has the backing of the main sporting organisation.

And the government is currently conducting a feasibility study on the viability of such a stadium.

The Maze site could be attractive for such a stadium as it has access to the main motorways, as well as rail links.

We can't say that some part of the site has to be preserved and then build around that - the opportunity is there to build for the future, not to build for the past
Edwin Poots
DUP

But former sports minister Michael McGimpsey is not convinced a national stadium is the best use of scarce resources, and insists that the Maze would not be the best site.

He suggests that if there is such a stadium, the best location is as close to the Odyssey arena in Belfast as possible.

It has been suggested that the only limits on the site are imagination and costs and Mr McKernan admits it could take some time to transform the site.

However, the panel wants a development on site that has both local, national and international significance.

Edwin Poots, the Democratic Unionist Party panel member, agrees. He says he has an open mind about the site, but suggests the museum should not be the over-riding consideration.

"We can't say that some part of the site has to be preserved and then build around that. The opportunity is there to build for the future, not to build for the past," he said.

More information is available on the website www.newfuturemaze.com




SEE ALSO:
Public views sought over Maze
05 Dec 03  |  Northern Ireland
The prison that served its time
27 Jul 00  |  Northern Ireland


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