How the Maze prison could tell our labyrinthine story of horror
Before the bulldozers moved in, I was given access one wintry November afternoon to the site of the old Maze prison. I had been many times before in the days when it was crammed full of republican and loyalist inmates. The creaking of the pedestrian turnstile at the entrance is imprinted on my memory, as is the bleak reception area where visitors waited.
When a prisoner's number was called out, relatives, including children, would be ushered into a windowless vehicle which trundled off like a ghost train into the H-Blocks complex.
The occupants were counted in and counted out. Sometimes, the vehicle would stop en route, the rear doors would open and a warder would climb aboard to double-check the numbers inside.
I visited Michael Stone, the Milltown cemetery killer, on several occasions. He was deemed a 'red book' inmate, meaning he was considered so dangerous, along with some 20 other prisoners, that he was only entitled to one brief visit per week – and that with a warder standing within a few feet of us.
The visitors' compound was a pathetic sight, filled with young and middle-aged men, Protestant and Catholic, republican and loyalist, who had ruined other people's lives with guns and bombs.
Whatever one's feelings about the Maze prison, it was a unique place apart in this country. Though many victims of violence may not care to be reminded of what it stood for, we cannot simply airbrush it from our history.
On my last visit there, before the site was cleared, I was able to walk around some of the H-Blocks, visit the control room with its banks of out-dated television monitors and ceramic telephone receivers, climb a watchtower and visit the prison hospital.
As I walked along the eerily silent corridors and peered through the slits in cell doors at the empty spaces inside, I could not have had a more emphatic illustration of the road Northern Ireland had taken from conflict towards peace.
In its grotesqueness, in the fact that its walls were ingrained with three decades of terror, the Maze prison symbolises the past like nothing else, underlines where we are in the present and what we must avoid in the future.
For that reason alone, I am glad that some part of it has been preserved for posterity – not as a shrine to terrorism in my eyes, but as a monument to the horror of violence, the inhumanity of neighbour towards neighbour, the appalling suffering inflicted on so many by so few. And the need to ensure that there will never be a Maze prison again.
The fact that the 360-acre site at the Maze is being developed at all is a positive sign after seven years of political deadlock.
We will begin to see the fruits of change with the opening of the new Royal Ulster Agricultural Society showgrounds.
Had a national sports stadium been approved, it, too, would have symbolised a new beginning for Northern Ireland, but regrettably the opportunity was missed.
The principal difficulty with the Maze prison is that memories in this province remain so raw. We are so close to the agony of the past. The whole debate has been distorted and coloured by the term 'shrine to terrorism'. To listen to the protagonists last week, it would appear that Bobby Sands was the be-all and end-all of the Maze prison.
The hunger-strikers represent but one chapter in a story covering three decades, encompassing the lives – and deaths – of people from across this community, including the staff and soldiers who served there in such dangerous circumstances.
It will be down to the administrative team involved in planning the new conflict resolution centre to tell the story as it was, not how one side or the other would like it told.
The challenge is one that has faced historians, academics and journalists covering Northern Ireland and many other conflicts around the world.
The task is difficult, but not impossible.
The current arguments over the rights and wrongs of preserving parts of the Maze prison and the conflict resolution centre cannot be ignored.
The debate should stiffen the resolve of the planners to get it right. If they do that, Northern Ireland will have created not a shrine to terrorism, but a valuable and unique perspective on the past; a focus for public interest from home and abroad and – possibly – a venue to be visited even more than the successful Titanic centre.