By Jack Holland
The London Sunday Times carried a story last week which gave me pause. It reported that the Maze Prison, near Lisburn, just outside Belfast, is to be closed and demolished within two years.
Already, its notorious H-blocks are emptying as prisoners are released. They expect 200 to be freed during November alone, thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, which would leave about 200 inmates within its concrete walls. According to the Times, the authorities want to get rid of The Maze as quickly as they can. The paper reports that they plan to sell it to local developers as a building site for a housing development. I hope not. With a bit of imagination, one could put it to much better use.
Think of it in historical terms.
After all, some of the most important events in the Troubles’ history took place within its grim walls. This is where the blanket men began their grueling protest for political status, back in 1976 (shortly after the prison opened). This is where the dirty protest dragged on for years in excrement-besmeared cells, and where in 1980 and 1981 the hunger strikes, which changed the course of Irish history, were launched. It was from The Maze that in September 1983 the Provisional IRA carried out the largest jailbreak in its history, when 38 men escaped. Though 19 were recaptured almost immediately, the rest got away. (Four of them ended up in the U.S.) During its 22-year history, the Maze contained some of the leading figures of the Troubles — and some of the most dangerous. Just think of all the politicians who had their training there: Gerry Adams, Gerry Kelly, Gusty Spence, Davy Ervine, Johnny White and Billy Hutchinson, to name but a few.
I mean, it doesn’t take long to establish the fact that, horrible or not, the place has a lot of history. This is why to demolish it in favor of a housing development would be crass and short-sighted.
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There are alternatives. The most obvious one would be to use it as a museum or "interpretative center." Since so much of the history of the Troubles took place there, why not use it to contain a history of the Troubles? Dublin has Kilmainham Jail, after all, where terrible things also happened over the years. It would not be the first time that a prison has been turned into a tourist attraction. Look at Alcatraz. Or the Tower of London.
Anyway, there is nothing wrong with turning places where horrible things have happened into places where people can learn about their history. The Coliseum in Rome is perhaps the most outstanding example. Now one the most popular tourist attractions in the world it was once the arena where people were fed to the lions and thousands died in brutal gladiatorial contests.
The Northern Ireland Troubles will soon be history. So why not establish a site to house a museum which recounts that history?
There is nothing in Northern Ireland which caters to those visitors who go there curious about what happened between 1968 and 1998. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has been politely ignoring it for years. A while back, when there was a suggestion from the NITB that it might look at the possibility of doing something on the Troubles, there were howls of outrage from some quarters about "exploiting" the situation. To a certain extent this was understandable while people were still being killed in the name of one cause or the other. But now that that is, hopefully, a thing of the past, somebody should meet the real need that is out there.
With a little bit of imagination one could envision a re-creation of the old site on which Long Kesh stood before The Maze was erected. Perhaps guides could even take visitors down a reconstructed escape tunnel like that the INLA dug in 1976 in the first successful big breakout in the prison’s history. Or reconstruct the 1983 mass escape, which began when IRA prisoners took over H-7 and then hijacked a food truck to drive them to the front gate. Since there are soon going to be a lot of unemployed prison officers — about 1,000, according to The Sunday Times — a few of them might be reemployed to act the part of prisoners.
At its peak, The Maze held 700 prisoners and cost £52 million a year to run (about $70 million). Surely, there is no better place to get a feeling of what the Troubles were really like.
Tale from the Maze
One of my favorite prison tales concerning The Maze took place in 1976, during negotiations which were then going on involving representatives of the various paramilitary groups, the prison authorities and the British government. The British at the time were trying to convince the leaders of the factions to accept the criminalization program, in return for which prisoners would be eligible for early release. There would be other perks, like a special welfare center in Belfast to sort out the needs of the released men. Among the different organizations, the INLA was the most opposed to the program, and saw it clearly as a dangerous attempt to undermine the whole basis for the republican movement’s struggle.
After one meeting broke up late, and the various spokesmen left, the INLA representative found himself waiting in the prison parking lot for his lift back to Belfast. It never came. The only two cars left in the lot were full of Official IRA men and UDA members. The INLA had just had a feud with the Officials, and the UDA men were not exactly friends. The INLA negotiator got a little nervous and banged on the prison door, pleading to be readmitted. Once inside, he convinced a prison officer who was driving to Lisburn to drop him off at the town’s railway station. He remembers the journey through the dark countryside as being rather strained. He sat praying that the INLA’s threatened campaign against prison officers would not begin sooner than expected.