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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 February 2005, 07:13 GMT
Maze could become leisure mecca
By Gareth Gordon
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

Once it was a potent symbol of Northern Ireland's divisons - a place of bitter conflict, murder and political protest to the death.

Now the site of the notorious Maze Prison could be transformed into the biggest leisure complex in Ireland.

The province's warring politicians have finally agreed on one thing - a way to develop the 360-acre site so that it can become a beacon for the future - while still enshrining, forever, its own troubled past.

The corridors of the Maze have lain empty since the last prisoners left in 2000
The corridors of the Maze have lain empty since the last prisoners left in 2000

Ever since the final prisoner left in September 2000, arguments have raged about what to do with the prison site.

Unionists wanted it levelled in case it became a shrine to republican resistance.

Republicans wanted at least part of the original prison retained as a museum and educational campus.

The government wanted all-party agreement before deciding on the Maze's future.

Now, after months of tortuous negotiations involving politicians from the four main parties, the Maze Consultation Panel has come up with a unanimous report which has compromise at its heart.

It will be regarded by government as a major success at a time when all other political deals are off the table and the political process is in crisis.

The prospects for a modern stadium which would be home to the Northern Ireland soccer team, the Ulster rugby team as well as various GAA fixtures, have never been better
The panel's vision is for a 30,000 seater stadium to stage soccer, rugby and, crucially, gaelic matches.

The government has always insisted it would only pay for the 55m arena if it was inclusive - hence their insistence that the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) would be part of it.

The problem for the GAA was that, in the words of one Sinn Fein politician and former IRA prisoner, Paul Butler, "no GAA player would play on the rubble of the H-blocks and in particular the hospital wing where 10 republicans died on hunger strike".

But this plan gets around that. The stadium - if and when it is built - will be on the site of the old Army camp at the Maze and not the part of the site where the prison was housed.

Under the panel's plan, the hospital wing would be retained as part of an International Centre for Conflict Transformation.

The future of the H-blocks is under consideration
The future of the H-blocks is under consideration

The centre would also have one remaining H-block - H6 - as well as the former prison's administration block and emergency control room.

There are also plans to have a major international equestrian centre and showgrounds and, possibly, an indoor arena.

It is understood the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society - which draws thousands of people to the Balmoral Show at its present base in south Belfast every May - has expressed an interest in moving to the Maze.

There would be a zone for industrial development, a hotel, bars and restaurants and playing fields for other sports.

Road and rail links would be upgraded to bring fans to events at the stadium.

The panel claims it could bring in 1bn of investment from the public and private sector.

But the negotiations have been painfully slow.

The government feared the collapse of political talks on devolution, and the subsequent Northern Bank robbery - blamed on the IRA - could scupper the Maze plan.

One source said: "It was like an episode of the TV programme One Man and His Dog. Just as we were close to getting them all in the pen someone always made a run for it."

Now that it appears everyone has at last been rounded up, the prospects for a modern stadium which would be home to the Northern Ireland soccer team, the Ulster rugby team as well as various GAA fixtures, have never been better.


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How the plans have been received in Northern Ireland



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