Page last updated at 19:10 GMT, Monday, 30 January 2006

First peek at Maze masterplan

By Gareth Gordon
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

There used to be barbed wire, high concrete walls and dangerous inmates from all of Northern Ireland's warring paramilitary groups.

Now the government's vision for the once-troubled Maze Prison site, the ultimate marriage of sports and politics, is finally unveiled.

Click here to see the plans for the Maze site

Until now, the Maze masterplan, drawn up by the company which designed the template for the London 2012 Olympics bid, has been known only to a select band of designers, officials and a few politicians, but a copy has been obtained by the BBC.

It shows how the plan's two most controversial elements - a 42,500-seater stadium and a conflict transformation centre, featuring some of the old prison's most controversial history - are to be married together.

To complete this picture, add a 5,000-seat indoor arena; a rural excellence and equestrian zone featuring an international exhibition centre and showgrounds; an hotel; offices; cafés and restaurants and a multi-screen cinema alongside an industrial zone with the potential for up to 6,000 jobs; housing and parkland.

The plan also outlines how the government intends countering the other main reservation expressed about the Maze: its location.

The design shows a new junction and link road onto the site from the M1 to the south. And to the north, the Blaris Road to Lisburn will be upgraded.

There are also plans for a rail link and park-and-ride system close to the stadium, though these will not be ready by the stadium's planned opening date in 2010.

The thinking is that two entry and exit roads will be required to the site to avoid, for example, problems which have been encountered by fans using the Reebok Stadium in Bolton.

WHAT'S PLANNED FOR THE MAZE?
42,500-seater stadium
Conflict transformation centre
Indoor arena seating 5,000
Rural excellence and equestrian zone with international exhibition centre and showgrounds
Hotel
Offices
Cafés and restaurants
Multi-screen cinema
Industrial zone
Housing and parkland
Rail link and park-and-ride system
Upgraded surrounding roads
The Maze consultation panel, which includes representatives from all four main parties, reached agreement on a way forward for the Maze/Long Kesh site in February 2005.

In June, the Reinvestment and Reform Minister, Jeff Rooker, appointed the London-based design specialists EDAW to draw up the masterplan.

The work also involved the architecture firm HOK, the company which designed the Arsenal and Wembley stadiums. They worked on the part of the plan linking the external stadium design with the rest of the site.

For this they drew up plans for a podium - just like at Arsenal and Wembley.

Underneath will be underground parking for 3,000 cars and service areas.

H-blocks
One of the H-blocks will house the conflict transformation centre
Above will be a large public space tying the stadium to the exhibition halls and the indoor arena, which are earmarked for sports like basketball, tennis and boxing.

The equestrian zone may become the new home for the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society, which currently stages the annual Balmoral Show at its headquarters in south Belfast.

The equestrian zone may also perform another very important function - it would separate the stadium from the International Conflict Transformation Centre (ICTC), a distance of more than half a mile.

For officials concerned about the sensitivities of housing both these facilities on the same patch of earth, the distance is important.

For Sinn Fein, preservation of at least part of the old prison site was key to them agreeing to the overall Maze plan.

Stadium plan
It is hoped the stadium will be ready by 2010

But for some unionists the idea is anathema. It has even been derided as a "hunger strike museum" by some.

It is known that one of the old H-Blocks, H6, will be preserved - along with the prison hospital where the 10 republican hunger strikers died, as well as the administration block and two old aircraft hangars which date back to Long Kesh's time as an airfield in World War Two.

Sources say that whatever form the ICCT finally takes, it must be agreed by the Maze Panel.

"In other words, the DUP will have a veto on what appears there, so it can hardly be viewed as something which will glorify republicans," said one.

Opposition

But a glance at the popular Northern Ireland football fans' website, Our Wee Country, shows that plans for the centre explain some of the opposition from a vocal group of supporters who do not want a stadium at the Maze.

Nevertheless, the decision by the Irish Football Association - along with the rugby and GAA authorities - to agree in principle to the Maze as a location, allows the government to move to the next stage which should see the three sports involved in the stadium design.

Sports Minister David Hanson would like to announce a decision within two months - though the tortuously slow progress to date suggests that timescale may be optimistic.

It's hoped the stadium will be ready by 2010 - allowing two years for design and procurement and two years to build. The absolute cut-off point if it is to stage some soccer games in the 2012 Olympics is 2011.

There are still many potential obstacles which could make the Maze a non-runner.

But the OK from the three sports, albeit in response to a government deadline, and now the appearance of the Maze masterplan means the referee is closer to putting his whistle to his mouth.



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