26 January 2006

Long Kesh - Preserved site will tell story of those held there

An Phoblacht

BY JIM GIBNEY
26 January 2006

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Outside Long Kesh

Long Kesh, for over 30 years the property of the British Government, where it interned thousands without trial and imprisoned thousands more sentenced political prisoners. A monument to the failure of partition and the occupation of Ireland.

But now Long Kesh is in the hands of the four main political parties in the Six Counties, including Sinn Féin. Late last year the British Government handed over the future of the prison and the 360-acre site to the Maze Long Kesh Panel.

Central to its future is the preservation of part of the prison, including the H-Block hospital where ten Hunger Strikers died in 1981, and the building of a multi-sports stadium. Long Kesh is set to become a symbol of the new Ireland emerging from decades of armed conflict.

Sinn Féin's representatives on the panel are no strangers to the prison. Panel Vice Chair Lisburn Councillor Paul Butler served a life sentence in Long Kesh as did Raymond McCartney MLA.

Three years ago, urged on by unionists, bulldozers circled the prison with the intention of demolishing it. It was saved from destruction by an effective campaign by ex-prisoners organisation Coiste na n-Iar Chimi.

A British Government appointed body, the Maze Consultation Panel, recommended preservation of the prison and the building of the stadium. Unionists tried to cherry pick the report but were told to chose between both projects together or none at all. Not surprisingly they chose both because the stadium brings economic dividends to the local unionist hinterland.

Conference

Last week Coiste organised a conference entitled Developing and Interpreting Contested Sites to outline their ideas and listen to others.

Raymond McCartney said republicans were not interested in the prison as a 'trophy of history'. They sought to use it as a centre for national and international reconciliation. The plan for an International Centre for Conflict Transformation at the prison would ensure its turbulent history would be the backdrop against which conflicts around the world would be analysed.

Patrick Cook curator of Dublin's Kilmainham Jail provided a fascinating insight into the political and social history of the jail and the difficulties experienced by those trying to preserve the prison as a museum to the struggle for national independence.

It was an emotional site, which provoked great passion and bitterness among republicans. For this reason and others the prison was left to the elements when it closed its doors in 1924. By the late 1960s, through voluntary labour, it was painstakingly restored. Today, a tour of Kilmainham is an account of the 'inner motivation of those who were held there'. Almost 175,000 people visited Kilmainham last year.

Margaret Edwards spoke about Derry's Tower Museum and the part it plays in the city's tourist revival.

Louise Purbrick took the meeting through three different museum experiences to illustrate how people relate to and engage with artifacts of historical interest. One was a bare field south of Auckland in New Zealand where 41 Maoris and British soldiers died fighting each other. The field is a contested site visited to remember those who fell there.

The other was a prison in Berlin used by the Stasi to torture suspected dissidents. Former inmates of the jail take visitors on guided tours of the place.

The third was an exhibition of art by internees being held in English prisons.

Alan McBride, who lost his wife in the IRA bombing on the Shankill, conditionally approved of Long Kesh being maintained, provided it was an 'inclusive' venue.

Coiste spokesperson Mike Ritchie assured those present that the preserved Long Kesh would tell the stories of those held there: republicans, loyalists, prison officers and British soldiers.

Quite an achievement in this the 25th anniversary of the 1981 Hunger Strike

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