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Former Maze prison site new home for Northern Ireland's first air ambulance base

By Cate McCurry

Published 17/11/2016

The new air ambulance outside Titanic Belfast
The new air ambulance outside Titanic Belfast

The former Maze Prison site - which has been at the centre of a political deadlock - will be the new home to Northern Ireland's first air ambulance base.

The First and Deputy First Ministers last night said they were offering land at the site as a possible operating location.

The announcement comes days after the air ambulance made its first flying visit to Northern Ireland.

Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness described it as a "crucial step towards the establishment of the service".

The offer by Stormont's political leaders comes amid ongoing stalemate over the Maze site.

In September, the Ulster Aviation Society was forced to cancel an open day because of a lack of support from Stormont.

It was the third time in as many years that the society was forced to cancel a planned open day.

It is believed Sinn Fein refused to support the events as a response to the DUP's opposition to a peace and conflict transformation centre at the site.

In 2006, a masterplan for the site was unveiled, including a 45,000-capacity national multi-sport stadium for football, rugby and Gaelic games, and demolition work started in preparation for construction at the location.

However, there was a failure to agree among the political parties after Sinn Fein insisted a peace and conflict transformation centre must be part of the plans or they would not support them. But unionists were sceptical of what form this could take.

Two specially designed medical helicopters will be permanently based in Northern Ireland.

A final decision on where the service will operate from has not been made with Belfast International Airport being another option.

In a joint statement, the First and Deputy First Ministers said: "We look forward to an accessible air ambulance service becoming operational as soon as possible to help save lives when time is critical. Executive ministers stand ready to do all they can to help make that happen.

"The service will play an important role as we reshape our health service in the years ahead and will help ensure that we provide the best possible emergency care for people when speed is of the essence."

One ambulance will have the call sign Delta 7, in memory of Dr John Hinds, one of the so-called 'flying doctors' of Irish motorcycle racing who campaigned tirelessly for the service before his death in a crash last year.

Delta 7 was his call sign when he worked as a medic on the racetrack.

His family and friends have been to the fore in the campaign for the air ambulance.

"We think particularly of the late Dr John Hinds, who was a strong advocate of establishing this service," the ministers' statement continued.

"It will be a fitting tribute to him.

"Great credit must go to the trustees of the charity Air Ambulance Northern Ireland who have worked so hard to deliver the project."

Terence Brannigan, chairman of the Maze Long Kesh Development Corporation board, welcomed the announcement.

"The development corporation looks forward to working with and supporting Air Ambulance NI in the future," he said.

The former prison was closed in 2000 after the bulk of its terrorist prisoners were released under the terms of the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

The only successful development of the enormous Maze site to date has been the relocation of the Balmoral Show from Belfast.

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