Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Bold imagination needed to find a way out of this Maze

Plans to revamp the old H-blocks site have stalled so let's consider relocating the peace centre to Titanic Quarter, argues Professor William J V Neill

Aerial view of the Maze site
Aerial view of the Maze site

With a decision on a Conflict Transformation Centre at Maze/Long Kesh now on indefinite hold, an alternative location for such a facility, in addition to being a good idea in itself, could be a way of avoiding the loss of valuable European Union funding.

On a previous occasion, coinciding with the centenary of the Titanic commemoration, I criticised in this newspaper the hitching of Titanic cultural heritage in my native city of Belfast so narrowly to market values. Maybe there is a chance to put this right.

If an iconic building is needed for a Conflict Transformation Centre surely the former headquarters of Harland and Wolff,which incorporates the sadly neglected Titanic Drawing Offices, is an obvious choice. This building is truly unique and could be a fitting shared space where different and no doubt conflicting narratives and accounts of 'the Troubles' and the peace process could be put forward for contemplation.

The Titanic Foundation, which has taken possession of the building, has been canvassing for possible uses for the deserted structure which is in sore need of restoration. The use proposed by the previous developer was a conversion to a luxury hotel. Surely a more appropriate use would be to dedicate this authentic Titanic footprint where the legendary ship was designed not to the making of profit but the saving of lives.

It could be a meeting place for those involved in peace processes elsewhere where what has been learnt on these shores can be shared.

It would be unfortunate if we could not move beyond seeing Titanic heritage space in Belfast as unionist space and the Maze/Long Kesh as republican space.

What better way than to bring the respective stories, reflections and interpretations together in the place formerly known as Queen's Island and now rebranded as Titanic Quarter.

In making this a truly shared space where once it was a cold house for Catholics the talents of the international architect Daniel Libeskind are still available. He can do better than the derivative Conflict Transformation Centre concept unveiled for the Maze/Long Kesh.

We should not forget that the Jewish museum in Berlin for which he is renowned was in fact an extension to an existing building: the Berlin museum.

Can we only consider the impoverished idea of building an extension to the Harland and Wolff structure to accommodate more hotel beds?

Rather, a Libeskind extension to this building as part of a conflict resolution centre is an exciting prospect.

It could give Belfast a landmark building in a central location in the way that the I.M.Pei pyramid forming the main entrance to the Paris Louvre museum, is a now a must-see attraction jarring as it does with its traditional surroundings.

Rather than a crass hyping of the rhetoric of normalisation, Belfast and Northern Ireland needs jarring spaces of creativity and contemplation and compromise rather than confrontation.

It is a place that remains severely culturally myopic at the level of everyday life , no matter how many recent theatres have been built , rebuilt and refurbished.

To shatter a stasis in culture, a more ambitious and bold imagination is required.

A conflict transformation centre at Titanic would be a fitting tribute.

Let us truly put the past to work for the present in a way that will do us proud.

This is an idea that I explore more fully in the recently published book 'Re-launching Titanic: Memory and Marketing in the New Belfast' (ed. Neill , William J V , Murray Michael and Grist Berna, Routledge, London and New York, 2013).

William J V Neill is Emeritus Professor of Urban Planning at University of Aberdeen

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