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Conspiracy of silence that has clipped the wings of a potential tourism high-flyer for Ulster Aviation Society

For the past three years the Ulster Aviation Society has been asking OFMDFM for permission to hold an open day at its base on the site of the former Maze Prison... without so much as the courtesy of a reply. Malachi O'Doherty reports

Published 06/04/2016

Ray Burrows, chairman of the Ulster Aviation Society
Ray Burrows, chairman of the Ulster Aviation Society
The society’s replica Spitfire
A vintage jet in the UAS hangar at the Maze

It's a simple enough request, but it is routinely ignored. The Ulster Aviation Society, which is legally renting a hangar at the site of the former Maze Prison, wants to hold an open day to display its collection of planes. It needs the permission of the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers - and it doesn't reply to applications.

This is the third year in a row that the men who play with planes have sought permission to hold an open day and, as in the past two, they are not getting a refusal; they are getting no answer at all.

Why OFMDFM doesn't reply is something that can only be guessed at. One theory being batted around is that Sinn Fein is sniffy about the Ulster Aviation Society because its work of cherishing a Spitfire replica and other warplanes suggests a celebration of what republicans used to call the "British war machine".

By this - possibly paranoid - reading of the problem, the Ulster Aviation Society is viewed as pro-British and jingoistic and is, perhaps, imagined by closeted republicans as a coterie of chauvinistic blowhards hankering back to the days when the Empire ruled the skies.

But if that is the fear that is getting in the way, it would be easy to assuage it by visiting the men, watching them at work and talking to them among the reconditioned rescue helicopters and ambulance planes.

All they care about is whether the chunk of scrap in front of them once flew - that is sufficient challenge to make it at least look as if it might fly again.

These guys are not military fantasists; they are geeks obsessed with flying machines.

But why shouldn't they polish up a Spitfire? Without the Spitfire we might all be speaking German now and putting applications for open days before a Nazi government.

Though, come to think of it, republicans did more than anyone else to try and get German invaders into Ireland.

But the geeks with the grounded planes know that they are not perceived as cheerleaders for a return of the Empire because they know better than anyone who is coming to the hangar at Long Kesh to admire their hardware, and it includes children from Catholic schools.

And there is no evidence, in fact, that the thought has even crossed Martin McGuinness's mind that the Ulster Aviation Society has any political orientation at all. He might secretly fancy climbing into a Spitfire himself, as hundreds of schoolchildren do every year. There is no way of knowing why letters from the society asking permission to hold a day, or suggesting remedies for the deadlock, don't get answered, perhaps don't even get read.

McGuinness has never been more inscrutable than on this. This dereliction of responsibility to show ordinary civility in dealings with the society borders on plain bloody-mindedness.

It is suggestive of the kind of huff that only children and the childish have.

It reeks not of the considered procrastination of the politically cautious - for there is nothing to be cautious about - but of malice.

Of course, there are issues around the Maze site, and these may play in his calculations. Again, we can't know if he won't say.

The DUP under Peter Robinson's leadership broke faith with a promise to Sinn Fein over an undertaking to develop the old prison camp as a peace centre.

He torpedoed the idea in a letter from his holiday retreat, having held out for a time against other unionist critics of the plan who feared that Sinn Fein would develop the Maze into a shrine to the hunger strikers.

And it has to be said that Long Kesh, as republicans prefer to call it, is virtually holy ground to them. That is where revered martyrs like Bobby Sands died.

So, we can theorise a little further and suppose that the two top ministers in the Executive cannot agree to even discuss the Ulster Aviation Society's proposals because they are deadlocked on larger plans for the whole site.

But it is a big site. The hangars used by the Ulster Aviation Society are 100 yards from the old prison wall around the H-Blocks in wide open space. If there was goodwill and the least intention of responding to the request for an open day, it could be easily done without any trespass on buildings that must be preserved for their historic value, too.

It would not involve profane violation of ground that to some is sacred. Besides, school groups are routinely going into the hangar to see the planes and the old radios and ejector seats. There are at least four school trips booked in for this week alone.

Maybe it is best to keep quiet about that unless some minister, who declines to explain the silence, has an apoplectic fit.

If you don't know why someone has completely shut down in the face of pleading, then, of course, you don't know how to avoid offending them. And that, too, factors in the thinking of some in the Ulster Aviation Society.

They don't want to annoy and they are not sure that the least quibble or complaint would have that effect and bring further restrictions. How can they know when their letters aren't answered?

But ministers should know the value of the project they are rebuffing. This hangar in Long Kesh could be an Ulster Museum of the Air.

Its collection has been put together and maintained by volunteers. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the country and nothing comparable could be recreated without enormous expense.

Why do we have an Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and not an Ulster Flight Museum? Why do we have a monumental home for an exhibition relating to the Titanic, which is actually under the sea, and a mere shed on a deserted prison camp site for tangible planes that still smell of the history they have been through?

Here are planes that people can sit in and smell the oil and old leather about them and see the erosion of the seats and handles by the grips of real people who flew them and risked their lives in them.

The Ulster Aviation Society actually provides a richer experience for the visitor than the magnificent Titanic building does, and an Executive that prioritised tourism as much as it says it does would be eager to support it.

But no one is asking for the millions that could make it a premier attraction; just the permission and grant to hold an open day; just for OFMDFM to restore the routine it broke two years ago without explanation or apology.

Belfast Telegraph

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