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The Globe and Mail

Belfast peace centre proposal opens old wounds

Belfast’s Maze prison, which closed in 2000, was once the most notorious jail in Northern Ireland and symbolic of the ‘Troubles.’

Paul Waldie/The Globe and Mail

It has been closed for more than a decade but the Maze prison still casts a long shadow over Northern Ireland's fragile peace process.

There isn't much left of the prison today – just a few guard towers, some battered walls, a couple of buildings and acres of empty fields. But this was once the most notorious jail in Northern Ireland and a symbol of the "Troubles" in the 1970s and 1980s. It's where convicted paramilitaries were sent and where 10 Irish Republican Army inmates, led by Bobby Sands, won global attention by starving themselves to death in a hunger strike after demanding they be treated like political prisoners.

The Maze is caught up in another controversy now, this time over a plan to turn part of it into a peace centre. After four years of planning, the peace project has been scrapped, a victim of deep suspicions that never seem to be shaken.

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"The Maze project is dead in the water," said Willie Frazer, who represents a Protestant group of IRA victims who bitterly opposed the project.

"It is a mess," added Patsy McGlone, a member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, a nationalist party opposed to British rule. "It doesn't appear to be going anywhere."

It looked like such a good idea at the time. Ever since the prison closed in 2000 as part of the Good Friday peace accord, the Northern Ireland government has struggled over what to do with the 350-acre site, located roughly 14 kilometres southwest of Belfast. There were plans to build a sports stadium, an office complex and a recreation centre but they all fell through.

In 2010 the government came up with a development plan costing the equivalent of $543-million that included an industrial park, 200 homes, an aviation museum and an agricultural exhibition space. The centrepiece would be a $50-million Peace Building and Conflict Resolution Centre, where people from around the world could come to learn about Northern Ireland and study conflict resolution.

The plan initially won the enthusiastic backing of Northern Ireland's two main political leaders, First Minister Peter Robinson of the pro-union Democratic Unionist Party (DUP); and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, considered the IRA's political wing. Both said the peace centre marked an important step in Northern Ireland's progress.

Everything seemed to move forward. The government set up an organization to oversee the project and hired acclaimed architect Daniel Libeskind, who designed the new World Trade Center at ground zero site in New York. The European Union kicked in $33-million, saying the peace centre would be a "visible symbol of a mature society successfully emerging from decades of conflict."

The harmony started cracking last year when unionist groups stepped up their criticism of Mr. Robinson. They feared the peace centre would become a shrine to Mr. Sands and show disrespect for the many unionists killed by the IRA. Sinn Fein dismissed the concerns, saying the centre would cover all stories, including the republican prisoners' "struggle for political status."

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At first, Mr. Robinson defended the centre but by August, with tensions running high over clashes during sectarian parades and a bitter debate over flying the Union Jack at Belfast City Hall, he backed down, saying the necessary "wide-ranging consensus" was absent. In response, Mr. McGuinness said no development could occur on the site without the peace centre.

Former U.S. diplomat Richard Haas tried to revive the centre in December, during talks to resolve a host of long-standing issues stemming from the "Troubles." But the idea went nowhere and the overall talks failed as well.

Peter Shirlow, a professor at Belfast's Queen's University, said the decision to scrap the peace centre is a reflection that the province can't get beyond entrenched attitudes. "It was actually quite a positive thing initially that this had been agreed. It was one of the few times you actually saw Sinn Fein and the DUP agree on an approach," he said. "And then the politics of this society caught up with them." With a series of elections looming over the next few years, and positions hardening on both sides, Prof. Shirlow sees almost no chance of the peace centre being built any time soon.

There have been proposals to put the peace centre somewhere else and some have suggested building two – one for each community. But for now the Maze, also called Long Kesh, will likely remain the way it has for 14 years: empty and desolate. On a recent visit, the only bit of colour came from a large sign on the dreary road into the prison: "Maze Long Kesh from peace to prosperity."

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