Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Finding a way through a maze of missed chances

Where better to examine the lessons of the Troubles and the peace process than a conflict resolution centre on the site of the Maze prison, says Liam Clarke

Why are unionists so afraid of the big, bad Maze? Peter Robinson would be foolish to listen to those in his party who want to block any re-examination of the 1981 hunger strike.

Instead, he should be demanding, if possible with the support of Martin McGuinness, that the British and Irish governments release all the papers on the period.

These should be housed in a Conflict Resolution Centre, where they can be examined by public and scholars alike.

Economically, the delay in getting the redevelopment plan underway has been like burning money.

Inaction was opposed - to his credit - by Edwin Poots the former DUP minister responsible, but his party remained paralysed in an agony of indecision which has cost the province tens of millions in lost opportunity.

It is not just the £12m spent on maintenance since the 360-acre site was first gifted by the Ministry of Defence; that is chicken feed.

This was prime development land handed to the Executive while the property boom was still in full swing.

As Sammy Wilson looks for cuts, the DUP must answer questions about why it did not strike when the iron was hot and the price was right. Dithering has lost us the multi-sports stadium that would have given Northern Ireland a slice of the action from the London Olympics.

These squandered opportunities are now gone, so it's doubly important for the unionist leadership to get a grip on its fears and get the most from the project.

This means building the Conflict Resolution Centre which will incorporate the remaining H-Blocks and the prison hospital.

Visiting such a facility, if it is developed properly, would be a must-see tourist draw for Lisburn. You only have to look at Alcatraz to realise what an important part the Maze could play in attracting visitors to Lisburn. Yet confidence seems to drain away from the DUP and UUP leaderships every time the subject is mentioned.

Even Tom Robinson of EPIC, the loyalist ex-prisoners' group, who you would think might have an interest in the history of the H-Blocks, is demanding that the remaining blocks be demolished. The fear is that it could become a "shrine to terrorism".

That need not happen - especially if there was a truly representative group steering the project.

The fact is that the 1981 hunger strike and the protests which preceded it were a formative moment in both the Troubles and the peace process. It was called on the issue of prison rights, but its more lasting impact was in moving Sinn Fein into the electoral process, which in turn led to the ending of hostilities and IRA disarmament.

What went on between the British Government and Sinn Fein at the time?

The standard republican narrative is that Margaret Thatcher was, from beginning to end, determined to starve the prisoners to death in the hope of imposing a strategic defeat on the IRA. That has never entirely held water.

"Margaret Thatcher presented a public face as the 'Iron Lady' who was 'not for turning', yet she was no stranger to expediency," Gerry Adams wrote in his autobiography.

He described how, before a G7 meeting in Canada in July 1981, British officials told him she wanted to end the hunger strike. "They fed us a draft speech," that she wished to make on the subject and, Adams added, "there was no doubt that they were prepared to take amendments to her text from us if it had been possible to come to some sort of resolution at that time."

Brendan Duddy, the Derry businessman who acted as a link between Adams and the British, says in Beauty and Atrocity, a recent book by Joshua Levine, that "basically everything that sorted it out was on the table".

Richard O'Rawe, PRO for republican prisoners during the strike, says that he and some of the prison leadership were prepared to accept a British offer after the death of the first four of the 10 hunger strikers, but were overruled by the outside leadership.

His account is denied by Brendan 'Bic' McFarlane with whom he says he had the conversation, but it is confirmed by Gerard Clarke, another prisoner who was listening in the next cell.

O'Rawe's suspicion is that the hunger strike may have been kept going for political reasons until Owen Carron was elected as an MP on a Support the Prisoners ticket. Certainly the hunger strike helped undermine the Sinn Fein policy of not taking part in elections. Since 2006, I have been trying, through the Freedom of Information Act, to gain access to the British papers recoding their communications with the IRA. A few have been released, memos between Downing Street and the NIO, which suggest Thatcher did make an offer which was turned down, but which was implemented once the hunger strike was ended. The rest are still being refused on the grounds that they could undermine relations with the Irish Republic, compromise the operation of an intelligence agency or even undermine the devolution of policing and justice.

There are lessons here, not only for us but for other societies seeking to learn from our peace process. Where better to tease out the answers than in a Conflict Resolution Centre on the site of the Maze prison?

While Robinson's at it, he should consider making an imaginative appointment to the project's steering group: Richard O'Rawe.

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