The last time I had been inside the Maze prison was to meet the Milltown cemetery killer, Michael Stone, when he was jailed for life in the H-Blocks, almost 20 years ago. Now I was returning in very different circumstances.
In 1989, security was so intense that I was not allowed to carry even a handkerchief or pencil beyond the prison perimeter. It took hours to get in and the same to get out. Visitors were locked inside a van with no windows. Nervous warders regularly opened the vehicle's rear doors to count who was inside. My journey in the windowless van, trundling into the heart of the Maze, stopping and starting through a series of checkpoints, was like a disorientating ghost train ride.
That was then and, now in 2007, I am back to see for myself if the site of the Maze prison could be the bright new future of Northern Ireland. Could this be the setting for Northern Ireland's new national sports stadium or is it really only what some people claim it to be - a shrine to terrorism?
On a dismal Monday afternoon, courtesy of the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, the new landlords of the Maze, I have exclusive access to go where I please. Today there is no windowless van, just a minibus and freedom to go on foot anywhere on the vast 360 acre site.
By any standards, this is an extraordinary place. The darkness of the November sky mirrors the scene before me. Stretching away almost as far as the eye can see in the winter gloom is a rubble- strewn, overgrown landscape with avenues of pitted tarmac, running between the concrete foundations of what were once the prison buildings, the H-Blocks and the Nissan huts. Now and again, rabbits dart across what were once internment compounds and exercise yards There is no sign of life other than the occasional bulldozer on the work of demolition which will finally end in April next year.
There is virtually nothing left of where 'the men behind the wire' were imprisoned in the 1970s in the compounds they nicknamed 'cages'. But still to be demolished is the crumbling Cage 19, where loyalists like Gusty Spence spent time and across the weed-infested tarmac is Cage 17, where Gerry Adams was interned.
The original internment compounds occupied 90 acres but now it is mostly wasteland, fences and lampposts uprooted, rolls of rusting razor wire awaiting the arrival of another skip. The mountain of broken brickwork will be used as infill if and when the site is redeveloped. " Stand on that, " says my guide, "and you will be on the spot of the south stand of the new stadium."
Today, it is impossible to envisage but the plans are laid, the bids are in for redevelopment, and, very shortly, Northern Ireland should know if it is to have the stadium.
"This," Kyle Alexander tells me enthusiastically, as he surveys the site, "is an even bigger challenge than Belfast's Laganside and it is twice the size of Titanic Quarter."
He sees parallels. " For example, we were told the Waterfront concert hall couldn't work, shouldn't be built. That it would be a white elephant. And now people are making the same sort of claims about the Maze and the stadium project."
He also speaks from experience. Kyle Alexander was formerly chief executive of the successful Laganside project and now leads what is known as the Maze Regeneration Scheme.
We drive on over what will be car parks and other outdoor amenities on the site towards the only structures which will remain after the bulldozers have gone. This is where controversy centres. The legacy of violence is locked for ever in the grey brickwork of H-Block 6, the prison hospital, the control centre, a section of the prison wall and three watchtowers, which are all listed for preservation.
To walk into an H-block, to climb one of the 60ft tall look-out towers, to visit the prison hospital, is a chilling but unforgettable experience. Whether we like it or not, this is all our yesterdays before our very eyes, preserved for posterity, as it is now, virtually as it was before its closure seven years ago.
My voice echoes across the exercise yard of the H-Block. Inside, I walk down A wing, past each of the 26 cells it contained. With difficulty, I slam shut one of the great steel cell doors, just as prison warders must have done so many times in danger of their lives.
Nearby are the eight wards of the prison hospital, another single storey building like all of the H-Blocks, where republican and loyalist prisoners went for treatment. I peer through a tiny window in the corridor wall of ward eight and see a single iron bedstead in the room where the hunger striker Bobby Sands died.
Outside in one of the last remaining exercise yards, the lines of a basketball court are fast disappearing into the worn tarmac surface but goal-posts painted on the corrugated metal surrounding walls have still not faded.
I climb a watchtower, footsteps echoing noisily on the metallic ladders connecting one wooden platform to the next and eventually to the top, where a soldier's gun emplacement still rests and from where I look out over the remaining H-Blocks to my left and the cars speeding down the M1 to my right. Here, many a British soldier contributed his own little chapter to this country's history.
My journey takes me to the prison's old double security gates, where the windowless van had halted to be checked on my way into the H-Blocks to see Michael Stone in 1989. Now there are no guards, and no need for this special wire-meshed compound through which everyone had to pass. Today, it too stands rusting and stark, its gates open, a reminder of how far we have all travelled on the long and winding road to peace.
Inside the admin block, the control room looks like a throwback to an old episode of Dr Who, with out-dated consoles and rows of primitive surveillance monitors on the walls. Here was the nerve- centre of the Maze, where a generation of prison governors and officers carried out their duties, locked behind heavy steel-cast doors. A simple red-brick memorial stands outside. I am told it once bore the names of the dozen or so prison officers who lost their lives in terrorism attacks and one day soon may well be restored, as it should be.
And finally but far from least, there is the other side of the Maze. It's wartime history. It's airstrip. It's two World War II aircraft hangars which, like the prison buildings, will also be preserved. Here, a previous generation of Ulstermen and women, not to mention Allied and American air forces, were stationed in the 1940s. I look out across the airstrip from where many a wartime aircraft was scrambled and see another side to the Maze that the public seems to have forgotten.
Call the inmates of the Maze what you wish - internees, inmates, incarcerated or imprisoned; terrorists, killers, murderers or freedom fighters. Whoever or whatever they were, the Maze is a place that is about much, much more than them alone. And describing it as a shrine to terrorism is a superficial, unduly simplistic reflection of its full contribution to our society.
Certainly, it is a unique corner of Northern Ireland. It symbolizes the journey of this province from war, be it terrorist war or world war, to peace.
The Conflict Transformation Centre, which is part of the Maze plans, must grasp this concept without offence to one section of our society or the other. And if that can be achieved, the Maze may well become one of this country's biggest tourist attractions never mind the setting for the new sports arena, a major agriculture exhibition centre and a new hub of thousands of homes and jobs on the outskirts of Belfast and Lisburn.
And if and when it is built, which I hope it will be to the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland, could I suggest a name? The Stadium of Peace.