22 January 2006


Sunday Life

Alan McBride, at the heart of the matter
22 January 2006

Who thinks it would be a good idea to turn part of the Maze prison into a museum?

I first heard this question posed not long after the last prisoner was released in July, 2000.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usI have to say, at first I was horrified at the prospect. Imagine, people going to see the cell that once housed Gerry Kelly, Michael Stone or other infamous terrorists, maybe even glorifying them by buying loyalist or republican merchandise. Any takers for a pack of Bik McFarlane playing cards, or what about a Johnny Adair book mark?

Okay, so I am stretching it a bit, but in my mind at the time I just couldn't see any other reason for turning the jail into a museum, other than to use it to glorify those that under no circumstances should be glorified.

I mean, unlike the Crumlin Road Jail, the Maze could hardly be described as having any architectural significance, so what other reason could there be?

I guess time can change a person or at least allow them to see things from another perspective.

This week I had the opportunity to address the issue of a museum at the Maze in a meeting in Belfast, but rather than attack the proposals I found myself giving them a guarded welcome.

Whether one likes it or not the Maze is synonymous with one of the darkest periods in Northern Irish history, and as such it should be retained in order for the story to be told with some meaning.

For me this is no longer about the personalities that were incarcerated there, but more about the period of history that the jail was very much a part of.

For example, internment, detention without trial, blanket and no wash protests, hunger strikes, the ceasefires and Mo Mowlam's controversial visit to loyalist inmates, to mention a few.

Of course these stories would be told even if the Maze was bulldozed to the ground, but there is something extra special about standing in the actual location where so much of what we read and heard took place.

No doubt, the significance of each event will be interpreted differently by those who take the time to visit - but that's okay, there are after all various understandings of history in this society.

That said, one challenge that confronts us all is to hear the "other's" history. Perhaps the "Maze Museum" could be utilised to play a part in this regard.

Imagine, visits by school children, community groups, church groups, historical societies and the like, all with their own particular political and cultural baggage, passed on to them through generations of mistrust and fear, but coming nonetheless to engage in fresh learning and dialogue.

Surely, this could be one contribution to the development of a shared understanding of the past. However, whether this is realised or not depends on a number of factors, one of which is the way that the idea is put into practice.

The process must be inclusive; it must facilitate numerous stories, of course from the prisoners and their families but also from the prison staff, families of victims, Governor of the jail, etc.

Any attempt at a glorification of the conflict from any side must be resisted.

The overarching aim of the museum should be simply to tell the story of the Maze prison in all its various dimensions.

I know there are many who will find it difficult to visit, and perhaps never will. While I understand and have some sympathy with those who would oppose the idea, I feel it would be wrong to deprive this and future generations of this important historic site.

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