Maze could be a terror shrine, but only if unionists don't buy into it
"Is the Maze like Robben Island Prison or is it more like Spandau Prison?" Kenny Donaldson, co-ordinator of Innocent Victims United, posed a question that went to the heart of the Maze debate. And he had no doubt that the right answer was Spandau.
That was the jail for Nazi war criminals which was hastily demolished to prevent it becoming a place of pilgrimage by neo-Nazis after its last inmate Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy Fuhrer, died in 1987. Robben Island was the South African gulag on which Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were imprisoned. It is now preserved as a museum and national heritage.
Its website describes it as "a poignant reminder to the newly democratic South Africa of the price paid for freedom".
Mr Donaldson, who is launching his confederation of 15 victims' groups today at Stormont, speaks for many in the unionist community. He sees the preservation of a H-block and of the hospital wing, where Bobby Sands and nine other republican prisoners died on hunger strike, as an attempt to make innocent victims out of them.
"Once you take up arms or you seek to avenge something using violence you are no longer a victim. You lose any claim to the status of victim," he said. Even the word 'conflict' is anathema.
"What we had in much of rural Ulster wasn't a conflict, a war with two sides, it was a terrorist campaign," he maintained, convinced that none of the groups in his federation will be involved in the Maze or will consent to have their stories told there.
Without a communal buy-in from unionists as well as nationalists, the conflict transformation centre will, indeed, be a failure and the result will be one-sided; it could even turn into the very shrine to terrorism they fear. There are signs, though, that this won't happen, and that the site may become a means of helping us to digest our troubled past rather than a way of choking on its unresolved legacy.
For a start, the prison buildings are only a small part of the plans for the 350-acre site, though probably a headline one in the drive to attract tourists and visitors to Lisburn.
The watch tower, the prison hospital, the compound and the H-block are all listed buildings which must be preserved.
Leaving them locked up would seem a perverse, Orwellian denial of our past.
It would leave visitors feeling that we had something to hide as a society.
Yet there will be plenty more on the site to hold visitors' interest.
The Royal Ulster Agriculture Society is moving its showgrounds there. There is talk of a tractor museum – inventor Harry Ferguson was born a few miles away at Dromore – and there will be a huge display of civil and military aircraft. There is an Army base with its own history and there is an RAF facility which has been there since World War II.
In any case, the Conflict Transformation Centre, which will celebrate the achievements of our peace process, will be housed quite separately from the prison buildings or the old army camp. That landmark building has been designed by Daniel Libeskind, the Polish American architect renowned for his involvement in the plan for New York's Ground Zero.
It won’t be a shrine to terrorism, it will be, Mr Libeskind believes, a testimony to our power to imagine a better future.
There are signs of buy-in, and a balanced approach, from people who could never be described as republican sympathisers.
Take Raymond White, a former RUC detective, with more knowledge than most of who did what in the troubles.
Mr White now chairs the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers’ Association’s working group on the legacy of the past. He gave it a cautious welcome but warned that there must be academic oversight to ensure that a balanced picture was presented. He said: “I understand the fears that it could be exploited, but if it was handled properly, by objective bodies like the history departments of the two universities, this could be a good thing.”
He warned against leaving its running to any partisan group and suggested that a victims' section, with taped testimonies of Troubles survivors, should be added.
He recalled visiting Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and argued that a garden of remembrance and testimonies of the dead could be added to the proposed Conflict Transformation Centre.
“If we do this properly, for the first time, Northern Ireland could hold up its head and say ‘Bad things have happened here and this is our story',” he argued.
Peter Sheridan, another former RUC officer, who now heads Co-operation Ireland, which brings people from conflict zones abroad to study here, has also expressed support. He said that it “it shouldn't be a shrine to anybody”.
“It would be best organised with the selection of material grounded in research, not driven by gut instinct,” he added.
If that happens he believes it will be a magnet for researchers from around the world.
There may be rows which could drag on for years, but it is unlikely that the worst fears of people like Kenny Donaldson will be realised.
The DUP and unionist community generally are well represented on the Board which is running the development.
Terence Brannigan, the businessman who chairs it, is a DUP member. Another member, Jack Gallagher, is a former adviser to Peter Robinson and a third, Maurice Kinkead, is a former Baptist minister who chairs East Belfast partnership. Duncan McCausland is a former PSNI Assistant Chief constable.
In contrast the only person with obvious republican roots is Joe O’Donnell, who was once a Sinn Fein councillor representing Short Strand. Professor Tony Gallagher, the pro Vice Chancellor of Queens, brings academic rigour as does Professor Terri Scott, the Londonderry-born economist who heads Sligo Institute of Technology.
This is a business-minded group, determined to make the project work for us all. The model they have in mind for the prison section may be closer to Alcatraz than Spandau or Robben Island. That disused prison has ugly memories but it is now one of San Francisco’s must-see sights.