PUP's Hutchinson: flatten Maze or it will be IRA shrine
A leading loyalist and former life-sentence prisoner has said Northern Ireland's story of conflict and peace should not be told at the Maze.
And Billy Hutchinson went further, controversially calling for the disused prison buildings to be "razed to the ground".
The leader of the UVF-linked PUP, a former MLA and Belfast councillor, argued that no political party could guarantee that the Maze site "will not become a shrine to Irish republicanism".
His comments came just days after his party issued an opening statement on reconciliation and the vexed question of dealing with Northern Ireland's past.
Hutchinson said: "I think there are better and less contentious sites in Northern Ireland, such as the former jail and courthouse on Crumlin Road in Belfast.
"I want to be clear, I am not against the redevelopment of the Maze site and I believe that it can attract significant investment and create numerous jobs.
"We need bold proposals for economic development and regeneration – but these proposals must respect the views of all communities in Northern Ireland."
In recent days other loyalists have spoken in support of the Maze project, but Hutchinson's intervention will be viewed as significant given his leadership position within that community and his jail past.
"No political party can guarantee that the Maze site will not become a shrine to Irish republicanism," he said in a statement.
"The attitudes of those who visit the site will be as much a factor in determining this.
"Northern Ireland has a story to share with the rest of the world about ending conflict, but this story must not be told at the Maze."
While the former prison site is identified with stories of republican hunger strike and escape, thousands of loyalists were also held there, including the late Gusty Spence and David Ervine.
They and Hutchinson had violent parts in the Troubles and became significant figures in the developing peace; and the seeds of changed thinking and direction can be found in prison discussions and debates long before ceasefires and political negotiations.
But Hutchinson fears the loyalist story will not be heard at the Maze.
"The sites on Crumlin Road also have the potential to attract major investment and regenerate a disadvantaged area of the city," he argued.
"In the context of strategic Government proposals for a cultural corridor in this area of the city, I would argue they are a much more suitable location for a conflict transformation centre."
Billy Hutchinson was convicted of the murders of two Catholics in 1974. He spent a period on remand in Crumlin Road jail in 1974, and then was held at the Maze/Long Kesh site from 1975 until his release in 1990. After the ceasefire announcement he was part of exploratory talks with Government officials in 1994, and was elected to the Assembly after the Good Friday Agreement.