01 June 2006

Kesh plans welcomed


by Francesca Ryan

Plans for development at the former site of Long Kesh were unveiled by the British government on Tuesday.

At the heart of the masterplan for the 360-acre site is a proposal for a 42,000-seater stadium which has been given the go-ahead despite strong opposition from Belfast City Council.

Opponents say the stadium should be built in Belfast, but the British government has opted for the disused prison outside Lisburn.

David Hanson, the direct rule development minister who is responsible for the project, told a press conference that all three main sports that would use the stadium – GAA, soccer and rugby – were behind the proposal.

“This is the only site that can attract all three sports required to make a stadium operationally viable,” he said.

The controversial stadium, however, is only a part of the development envisaged by the masterplan which includes an International Centre for Conflict Transformation in the hospital wing of the prison where Bobby Sands became the first of ten republicans to die on hunger strike in 1981.

The centre was crucial in getting Sinn Féin on board the project, and the party’s representatives attended the launch with the other main parties to endorse the project on Tuesday.

Sinn Féin's Paul Butler, Deputy Chairman of the Maze/Long Kesh Monitoring Group, said the party's primary concern had been the preservation of part of the prison site because of its historical importance to both republicans and the wider community.

“We are pleased to see the prison hospital, where ten republicans died on hunger strike, a H-block, a cage and other prison buildings which make up the listed prison buildings, will be central to the proposal for an International Centre for Conflict Transformation," said Councillor Butler.

“Long Kesh is a place associated with the conflict here over the last 30 years and it mirrored and informed the development of the conflict outside these walls.

“It is a unique example of international prison history.

“It was both an icon and a microcosm of the conflict. It is a contested space, it has contested histories and contested policies.

“However, it now provides us with a huge opportunity to bring about a major physical expression of the ongoing transformation from conflict to peace."

As well as the stadium and the International Centre for Conflict Transformation, plans reveal that the site will contain a hotel, conference facilities and leisure and entertainment outlets including bars, cafes, restaurants, specialist retail outlets, a multi-screen cinema and a possible ice rink. These aspects have been welcomed by Lisburn Ulster Unionist councillor, Basil McCrea.

“Anything that's good for Lisburn, we support it, and we look forward to seeing this major development," Councillor McCrea told the Andersonstown News before warning that the plans must have cross-party support.

“There is a lot of history at this site so if we are to go forward, it has to be with a shared vision, which is why we need to involve all communities and all sports, otherwise we will end up with a white elephant.

“We have to get this right.

“Lisburn is changing dramatically and this investment and infrastructure, which will provide plenty of jobs, is our chance to get it right."

A new junction on the M1 motorway and link road have been incorporated into the proposals in a bid to overcome reservations about the site – as have plans for a park-and-ride scheme and a new railway station.

Mr Hanson said the proposals represent a fantastic opportunity to showcase all that is good in the North in terms of regeneration, sharing the future and conflict transformation.

“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.

“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."

Despite the proposed plans, a final decision could still be 18 months off.

Journalist:: Francesca Ryan

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