Conflict & Justice

Old prison sparks new outrage


A Belfast mural depicts Bobby Sands and the nine hunger strikers who died in Maze prison in 1981. A plan to turn the former prison into a museum has prompted fierce debate.


Corinne Purtill

Editor's note: This story is part of a three-part series on simmering tensions in Northen Ireland. Read about the uneasy peace 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement, and how the Union Jack has released the kind of animosity many believed was history.

BELFAST, UK — Years after the gates closed for the last time, Maze Prison is back in the headlines. A new plan is underway to convert the former jail where thousands of republican and loyalist paramilitaries served time during the Troubles into a museum and peace center. 

Like many matters in Northern Ireland, however, no one agrees how — or whether — that should be done.

Callers lit up the phone lines on BBC Northern Ireland talk radio host Stephen Nolan’s show on April 24 when he aired a program about the issue.

“Pull it all down,” one caller said. “My brother was there. It’s part of the past now. You have to move on.”

“It is an iconic site,” countered another. “The words ‘peace and reconciliation’ should be at the forefront of people’s minds. That’s what this site is about.”

The debate about what to do with Maze, located nine miles outside Belfast, is just one facet of a broader debate over how Northern Ireland’s turbulent recent history should be remembered.

The conflict’s complexity is part of the issue. At historical sites such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland or the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, the lines between victims and perpetrators are drawn far more clearly.

The history of the Troubles, however, is a complex web of killing by the republican paramilitaries, loyalist paramilitaries and security forces, with innocent civilians caught in the middle on all sides.

A memorial intended to honor one community can cause grave offense to another. Plaques and markers commemorating paramilitaries killed in the conflict are particularly galling to communities that lost members at their hands.

The last inmate left Maze in 2000, following the release of prisoners under the Good Friday Agreement.

On Wednesday, the corporation responsible for redeveloping the 347-acre site unveiled a $460 million plan that would include an international peace and reconciliation center on the grounds.

The project would preserve an H-block where republican and loyalist paramilitaries were housed and the prison hospital.

The hospital played a notable role in Northern Ireland’s history. In 1981, republican prisoners there launched a hunger strike to protest their classification as criminals instead of political prisoners. Strike leader Bobby Sands, 27 at the time, and nine other inmates starved to death before the strike was called off. The news caught the world’s attention and radicalized republicans.

The strike turned Sands into a near-mythic figure in republican history. A mural depicting a smiling Sands on the side of the Sinn Fein headquarters in Belfast — one of several tributes around town — was painted shortly after the strike and has been lovingly maintained in the three decades since.

Walls across Belfast are covered in colorful political murals championing key moments in republican and unionist history — Bloody Sunday, the Battle of the Boyne — and commemorating fallen comrades in the armed struggle.

Rifles and balaclava-clad gunmen still feature in many places. Locals in one public housing complex have dubbed the painting of an Ulster Freedom Fighter whose rifle barrel follows the viewer across the parking lot “the Shankill’s answer to the Mona Lisa.”

However, many communities have elected to paint over the most militant images. The government has given grants to people wanting to do just that.

Backers of the Maze project see not just a historical opportunity, but an economic one.

The museum would serve as a stop on an expanding tourist trail of visitors interested in Northern Ireland’s recent history. Developers claim the plan could create up to 5,000 new jobs.

The Democratic Unionist Party, the political party of Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, had long opposed a museum on the site on the grounds that it would become a “shrine to terrorism.”

However, Robinson has since become an ardent advocate. He has boasted about a $30 million investment from the European Union and told a conference in Dublin this week that it “will maximize the economic, historical and reconciliation potential of the site and also send out a powerful signal to the international community that Northern Ireland has moved beyond conflict.”

Others point to a key stumbling block: Whether it’s a mural on a crumbling concrete wall or a multi-million pound public project, who gets to decide what version of history is told? In addition to the hunger strikers, Maze housed thousands of other loyalist and republican prisoners, not to mention prison guards, all of whom have stories to share.

More from GlobalPost: Belfast after the Troubles

But the desire to tell their side has brought on board many whose first choice would have been to consign Maze to the wrecking ball.

“It should have been flattened,” said Colin Halliday, 56, of the Ulster Political Research Group, who served time at Maze for loyalist paramilitary activities.

But if it’s going to go ahead, he said, it’s better to be involved.

“It has to be people who were part of that prison history telling that history, or it’ll be someone else telling it for us.”