31 May 2006

Maze stadium: arena of conflict

Belfast Telegraph

As the plans for the Maze stadium are unveiled, the arguments over its merits as a suitable location continue to rage

By Deborah McAleese
31 May 2006

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Click to view graphic w/ notes - HM Prison Maze - Long Kesh

Ulster's new sports stadium can only be housed at the site of the former Maze Prison, the Government last night insisted.As vigorous arguments over its location were re-ignited, minister David Hanson yesterday called on everyone to throw their weight behind the project.

Unveiling the ambitious proposals for the 360-acre plot near Lisburn the minister admitted that major private investment will be necessary for the planned redevelopment of the site, which he said could cost up to £400m.

As well as a 42,000-seater stadium, plans also feature an international conflict transformation centre, cinema, industrial zone, hotel, restaurant and parkland. Unveiling the Maze/Long Kesh masterplan yesterday, Mr Hanson, the minister responsible for the project, said that the former jail is the only site that can attract rugby, football and GAA.

He said: "I think it is now time for Northern Ireland to get behind this project, a project for all of Northern Ireland but also a project that will make a significant contribution to the continued success of the region's capital city, Belfast. It is now time we look at this stadium as a real possibility for the future."

In 1981 IRA Bobby Sands became the first of 10 republican hunger strikers to die in the Maze. Mr Hanson said the site could now become a symbol of the progress made since the days of the Troubles.

"The opportunity now exists to turn security and military assets so long associated with conflict into symbols and engines of economic and social regeneration, renewal and growth," he said.

He added that the international centre for conflict transformation could be a place where people can learn about transcending conflict.

"This particular initiative lies at the heart of what the transformation is about - learning not just locally and regionally but internationally about our experience here of the move from conflict into peace," he said.

The site will also contain a hotel, conference facilities, leisure outlets including bars, cafes, restaurants, specialist retail outlets, multi-screen cinema, a possible ice rink and an equestrian centre. New transport links have been added to the plans.

YES to the plans

The stadium development proposals for Lisburn have been welcomed by a range of groups.

The Maze/Long Kesh Monitoring Group, headed by Lisburn politicians, has called for speedy implementation of the masterplan for the 360-acre site.

Group chairman Edwin Poots said he looked forward to seeing the development begin.

"It is important that the Government, including the Strategic Investment Board and other related public bodies, process the various stages of the Master Plan without undue delay and hopefully to its ultimate implementation. Implicit in that is a challenge for the private sector to engage with the project, as it has a vital role to play in making the plan come to life.

"This is an exciting, multi-faceted plan which, if implemented, will provide world-class facilities on a site accessible to all the people of Northern Ireland and agreed by the four main political parties."

The blueprint includes plans for a conflict transformation centre. Coiste spokesman Laurence McKeown, which represents republican ex-prisoners, views the plans as a step forward.

"The suggestion for a conflict transformation centre was actually made by Coiste so we are certainly very supportive of the announcement," he said.

"The intention in preserving part of the prison was that future generations could learn from it as the prison really was central to the conflict in a way that perhaps other famous prisons like Robben Island in South Africa were not because they were more removed."

Irish Football Association chief executive Howard Wells said it was a positive move.

"We have been waiting for some months for a move forward in terms of the next stage in the process," he said.

Lagan Valley MLA Seamus Close said: "It is for the good of our whole society and it is futuristic and ambitious and this will be a driving force to get action rather than just talk."

Michael McHugh

NO to the plans

The Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters' Clubs chairman, Phil Smyth, said he viewed yesterday's announcement with dismay.

"Developing a cinema and all the rest is all very well and good but for football supporters the stadium is much too big for the number of fans in Northern Ireland," he said. "There will be a loss of atmosphere and we feel that the logical thing to do would be to build a smaller stadium in Belfast.

"At the minute we are filling out Windsor Park at 14,000 but to increase our attendance three-fold is a bit much.

"This site has the potential to cost an absolute fortune and the vast majority of football fans are taxpayers so it is money out of our pockets for something which we don't want."

A Northern Ireland Tourist Board spokesman said: "Whilst NITB has expressed no preference in promoting specific sites, it has highlighted that the application of criteria aligned to tourism and related economic development priorities tends to favour city centre locations which are well supported with accommodation, restaurants, transportation networks and other amenities."

Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce President Dave Pennick, described it as a setback.

"We believe that this is a very time-sensitive venue in Lisburn in which people will simply attend for the event and not come for the weekend as we would see in Belfast and as we see in other cities with major stadiums like Cardiff. We have plenty of car parking and we have the infrastructure in place to cope with large numbers of people coming to the city," he said.

He added that the traffic problems associated with large events affected all similar cities and said it was an issue which could be dealt with.

Michael McHugh

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