The Moral Maze – ‘Terror’ shrine or conflict transformation centre?

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Why would we want to erase such a significant part of the story of our conflict, and why would we hide the stories of the Maze?

Remembering, recording what happened there, and on many other battlefields across several decades, has to be the whole story, or as much of it as possible.

This includes the hunger strikes and the escapes at Maze/Long Kesh as pages in a book of many other pages.

We cannot remember just part of the story. It has to be all of it, however uncomfortable, however unpalatable. It happened.

Former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott and Willie Frazer address the Loyalist protest last week at the entrance to the site of the former Maze prison in protest at the redevelopment of the site.

 

In recent days a senior loyalist dismissed the protest at the former jail site last week attended by unionist politicians and victims’ campaigner Willie Frazer (pictured above) as “soapboxing”

A banner was displayed, screaming out the words: “No Shrine To The IRA Murderers Of Ulster’s People”.

Is that what this planned conflict transformation centre is meant to be or is going to be – a shrine?

No say loyalists whose life stories weave in and out of that prison and its wings and cells and compounds and blocks; stories that read from war to peace.

Among them is John Howcroft, a regular contributor to the debate on the past here at eamonnmallie.com and a former life sentence prisoner.

“That site has a long and varied history,” he told me.

“There’s a story to be told by the prison officers many of whom are still suffering as a result of the role they had to perform in the conflict.

“It was a difficult and necessary job – done for wider society,” he continued.

Howcroft is looking back at that jail site and remembering it in its widest frame and context.

“It’s not just about the prisoners, but on the prisoners, there were many different shades of prisoners,” he said.

He means different loyalist affiliations – UVF, UDA, Red Hand Commando and LVF, and, on the republican side, IRA and INLA, both part of that 1981 hunger strike in which ten men died.

It was also a prison like no other jail, where republicans and loyalists dictated so much of the daily life routine on their wings;

A prison too that was acknowledged as different when those held within it – republican and loyalist – were eventually freed early as part of a political agreement.

So, Howcroft looks at this developing story in all its detail and strands.

“It’s also about the victims, what they had to come to terms with, what happened to them and then the early releases.

“So it’s a layered story and this [the victims’ story]is one of the layers,” he said.

Loyalist protest last week at the entrance to the site of the former Maze prison in protest at the redevelopment of the site

 

Another former loyalist prisoner has said his own community can stop the conflict transformation centre from becoming an IRA “Shrine” – by involving itself in the project.

William ‘Plum’ Smith, was held in the Long Kesh compounds during the 1970s, and is currently researching and writing a book on his prison experience; a journey that takes him back to the darkness of the 1970s.

He was a Red Hand Commando prisoner – convicted of the attempted murder of a Catholic man.

In Long Kesh, Smith, like so many others including the late David Ervine, began to think differently.

They were influenced by the then prisoner leader Gusty Spence; encouraged to think about education, about politics and about peace; thinking long before those on the outside.

Smith later chaired the 1994 loyalist ceasefire news conference and was part of the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement.

“What Protestants and loyalists need to do is get fully engaged in every aspect of the planning and shaping of the conflict transformation centre,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.

“The only way it will be a shrine is if the Protestant community allows it to be,” he said.

Smith now works for the Shankill-based EPIC project – an ex-prisoners centre, and is at an advanced stage of writing a book of many page turns; the shooting of which he was convicted, his prison experience, the learning on the inside that was taken outside and that prepared loyalists for the post-ceasefire negotiations.

Where we are today is far away from that prison battle ground of the 1970s-80s, from that period remembered for the blanket and dirty protests and the hunger strikes; remembered too for the prison officers who lost their lives.

“If everybody tells their story then no one side or faction can turn it [the conflict transformation centre]into a shrine for its own purpose,” he said.

Indeed he wants the families of staff as well as prisoners to tell their stories, as well as the people who live in the vicinity of the prison, including those who may have witnessed escapes.

Former Maze prison escapee Gerry Kelly

 

IRA prisoners, including now MLA and Policing Board member Gerry Kelly (pictured above), were involved in a mass break out from the jail in 1983 – two years after the hunger strike.

The prison was eventually emptied as part of that early release scheme introduced after the Good Friday Agreement.

Hundreds of prisoners – loyalist and republican – were freed; the last of the releases coming in July 2000.

There is something to remember as we consider the Maze/Long Kesh story and the conflict transformation centre.

The wars of this place reach out beyond the republican and loyalist communities; there were more than two sides; there were those who went to jail and those who did not; those who meddled and messed in this conflict and who are trying to escape the stage before the light finds them.

We need to end the narrow blame game and this focus on the prisoners and the Maze, and we need to get a process and a place inside which the many stories identified by John Howcroft and William Smith can be told.

There are those who think the Maze centre is a good idea, a good place to reflect and remember, and who are confident it won’t be a shrine or a place within which war is glamorised or romanticised.

They are important voices in this debate, who want to tell their experiences of a prison and a place that has many stories, not just one.

Let them be heard.

Daniel Libeskind (left) and newly appointed Development Corporation Chairman Terence Brannigan pictured on site at the old Maze prison.

 


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at www.merrionpress.ie

6 Comments

  1. Very interesting piece. The loyalist ex-prisoners have been disengaged from this site in the past however articles like this may show that this is changing. One group who remains disassociated with the site are the prisoners from MLK who were arrested for non-political crimes, their voices do not seem to register.

    The authorities behind the conflict resolution centre at MLK do appear to be attempting to engage with the various groups who feel a connection with the site but this management groups need to be more transparent with their actions. There is so much confidentiality surrounding the future of the site which has resulted in misinformation taking hold which is ultimately is harmful to the future of this redevelopment.

    I may feel distaste over the prominence of certain elements of the prisons history, such as the Hunger Strikes, but as is said in the article above, to give a true representation of this contentious site the entire history of MLK must be presented in a manner which is not sanitised otherwise the site will have no purpose. To learn from the mistakes of the past they must be presented in a blunt and truthful manner otherwise we are just whitewashing history and validating those who wish to rewrite history to suit their own means.

    • Richard – thanks for your contribution to the discussion. One of the things I’ve often said is there’s no point looking back just to record what happened. We need to ask why, and why it should never happen again.

  2. The proposed re-development of Maze/Long Kesh site will understandably generate many conflicting and indeed deep and even traumatic emotions amonst wider society.
    That is the very nature of the site, that itself is hugely symbolic of our divided history and the journey we as a society have taken.
    The Maze was, and is, part of that journey, and we can learn from that past and aspects of that journey, to make sure it is never our destination again. That has to be a good thing.
    Also, i think it is important that we do not forget the Halftown residents in this debate, who have lived in the shadows of this site for most of their lives, and what that site meant to them, but more importantly what the proposed re-development of this site can do for them in terms of socio-economic return.
    The failed rhetoric often applied to this debate at times from the all too familiar and predictable sidelines, is itself often beset with miscalculation and misdirection.
    Just one final point; i personally fail to understand how you can protest against something when you still don’t know what that something actually is? and if you are suspicious of what it might be, then get involved and make sure that your vision is put forward.

  3. I have been taking to many senior
    Loyalists in North Belfast in recent days about this sensitive issue, albeit exclusively from a UDA affiliated background: and through one of our many
    conversations, John Bunting has asked the question ‘how many people who spent
    much of their lives incarcerated in the Maze, were actually present at the
    protest?’
    This is a significant question.
    If there was an absense of the massive Loyalist ex-prisoners constituency that exists out there, as the ones, whether you like it or not, that brought the war to the IRA, while others sat on the sidelines giving a tacit support for young men and women going to jail, surely that tells us something?

  4. Barney,
    Whilst i think in your article you have provided a fairly balanced approach on this sensitive issue and you have taken the various complexities into account, i would just like to point out that you apply the terminology ‘Loyalist protest’ on three separate occassions within your article. yet, to my knowledge, and please correct me if i am wrong here, there were no senior Loyalist reps or ex-prisoners at this protest. If this is the case, what is the identity ‘Loyalist’ being used as a mask for? What is it hiding? Is it a Loyalist protest? or is it something else?

  5. I, today, am involved in the world of Design and Construction. From a professional view I have seen nothing (either in master plan discussions or directives) that indicate a ‘shrine’ for any side involved in the history of “The Kesh”.

    I have in other social forums challenged individuals who attended the protest and if I am honest the venomous, sectarian, misinformed & personal rebukes thrown back at me where bewildering. If I am honest, alarming (a threat to harm).

    Some one, some where is fueling deliberate misinformation and agitation so I am a bit surprised to see Tom Elliot involved in this.

    Like John, I am bewildered at the so called ‘Loyalists’ definition by the media and the organizers. My understanding is that FAIR and individuals associated to that group planned and arranged the gathering. There where bands in attendance and it would be interesting to investigate if this is how the ‘loyalist; label is being bandied – where those bands seen as extensions of the UDA, UVF, RHC & thus tacit support? Did they carry the regalia of those organizations while at the gathering? If that is the case, then the bands need a formal reminder from the ‘powers that be’ of true Loyalism?

    Both Plum and John have it correct: the only sure way to stop something is to be a part of it and bring about change by internal power of pursuasion…. but I come back to the reality that ‘shrines’ have not been a topic for the Regeneration and clearly, some one, some where is involved in an act of misinformation and manipulation for … what gain?

    As for a “Conflict Resolution Centre” as part of the overall regeneration – with my ‘Brit’ experience head on – absolutely no difficulty. It is essential that there are shared spaces where all dimensions to the Troubles can be visually or audibly interpreted or where people can come together in ‘a setting’ with historical import. John, Plum, Gerry & other prisoners are integral members of society, and their story is equally as important as mine, that of the UDR, RUC or Prison Officer.

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