Despite WWII links, Maze-Long Kesh site is deeply symbolic of Troubles

Developers hope to show path from conflict to peace and onwards to prosperity

Huts at Long Kesh internment camp back in 1971.

Huts at Long Kesh internment camp back in 1971.

Thu, Apr 25, 2013, 09:02

Best known as the setting for the internment camp after August 1971 and later for the notorious H Blocks, Maze-Long Kesh is deeply symbolic of the Troubles which erupted in 1968.

However the site has a much longer history and is associated with much more than emergency powers, prison camps and hunger strikes. Aerial views of the 347-acre site in the Lagan valley just outside Lisburn show the two runways which marked out this area as an airfield of some significance.

Vital airbase

It was a major US Air Force base during the second World War and was also used by the Royal Air Force. Its links with aviation are much deeper than anything to do with the more recent conflict.

However, its present-day significance arises largely from its association with the Troubles as it was here that internees, nearly 2,000 of them in total, were locked up in the Nissen huts and compounds of the old disused RAF site.

During the early 1970s, as the conflict worsened, the site was transformed into the Maze prison, with its eight distinctive H Blocks.

The opening of the new prison coincided with the ending of so-called “special category status” for those imprisoned there in March 1976 and which ultimately led to the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981.

Republicans resisted the policy of criminalisation, whereby they were treated the same as any other “ordinary” prisoner and the scene was set for a fatal confrontation between prisoners and the Thatcher government.

Republican enthusiasm

The prison finally closed in 2000 with the release of former prisoners under the terms of the Belfast Agreement and demolition of the prison began. Unionists have always been wary of republican enthusiasm for plans to retain some elements of the H Blocks for posterity.

The appearance yesterday of DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson alongside former IRA leader and now Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness on this most contested of sites resonates deeply.

Some unionists, notably those in the Ulster Unionist Party, and many victims’ groups, still harbour grave doubts at the wisdom of plans to preserve H Block 6. This contained the hospital where hunger strikers died and was where loyalist leader Billy Wright was pronounced dead after he was shot by other prisoners. A watchtower and section of the prison barrier are also to be retained alongside what is hoped will be a landmark Peace-Building and Conflict Transformation Centre due to open in late 2015.

The intent, say the leaders of the Stormont Executive as well as the heads of the Maze-Long Kesh Development Corporation, is to be transformative not retrospective.

Lessons from past

In so doing, the political will is to use a site closely associated with the second World Warand latterly the Troubles as a location for people to live, work and learn. Both Robinson and McGuinness say they are keen not to forget the past, but to learn from it and to use one of its most notorious settings for what they hope will be the economic rejuvenation of Northern Ireland.

It has taken nearly 13 years of political disagreement to get from a prison closure to open agreement on what is to be done with the site and some of its retained buildings.

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