Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Proposal for police museum at Maze prison is open and shut case

Almost 15 years after it was recommended in the Patten report, there is still no police museum. Yet the new Long Kesh site would be ideal, writes David Lockhart

Historic work: RUC officers sift through debris of the Omagh bomb
Historic work: RUC officers sift through debris of the Omagh bomb
Retired assistant chief constable Alan McQuillan
The former Maze prison

As a retired police officer with a keen interest in policing history, I have followed the progress of efforts to implement two key recommendations of the Patten Report, which was written almost 15 years ago.

The most urgent was that of a purpose-built training centre, first promised in the Hunt Report of 1970. When Bobbie Hanvey interviewed Sir Hugh Orde for his Downtown Radio show, shortly after taking up his post as chief constable of the PSNI, Sir Hugh made a commitment to ensure that one would be built. Indeed, he said his period in office should be judged on his ability finally to make it happen.

To be fair to the former chief constable, he probably had not realised the number of obstacles that would ultimately frustrate him. Nearly 10 years after the Policing Board selected Cookstown as the site, this exciting project, which now envisages a joint public services college, has become bogged down with arguments surrounding budget.

Ireland led the way in introducing policing to the English-speaking world when the Irish Parliament introduced it in Dublin at the end of the 18th century.

What really epitomises Ireland's influence over policing, however, is in the sphere of training, having introduced training in all aspects of policing 70 years before Great Britain. More recently, the RUC was the first police service in the UK to have its recruit training accredited by a university.

This leads me to the other key recommendation in Patten: the building of a police museum. A new chairman of the RUC George Cross foundation is in the process of being selected and that person will have to take the lead in ensuring a museum is built.

As retired assistant chief constable Alan McQuillan has observed: "Despite all the promises from politicians and ministers, it has taken 10 years to prise the money from the Government for the museum."

The suggestion has been to build the museum beside the memorial garden at police headquarters at Knock. It may seem fitting for the museum to be beside this beautiful, tranquil setting, where visitors and families can reflect on the sacrifices made by police officers, but we have to be practical. Access to the site is terrible, parking for cars is minimal and it is a major operation to get a tour bus inside.

As Alan McQuillan points out, "Everyone wants the museum to succeed, but to survive in the longer term it really needs to attract large numbers of visitors – not just ex-RUC officers and their families – to justify the investment.

"There is a real danger that, if the police museum is isolated at Knock, the huge contribution of the RUC to creating peace and stability and the sacrifice of its members to deliver that, will all be pushed to the margins."

The former Maze Prison site has been associated with the failed sports stadium proposal, but the newly created Maze/Long Kesh Development Corporation has been active over the last few months attracting the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society, progressing a peace and reconciliation centre and selecting contractors.

Much has been made of the fact that the Maze prison was sited here, but no matter what background you are from, it is undeniably part of the tragic history of this country.

The Maze/Long Kesh was also the site of a huge military base during the Second World War and the Ulster Aviation Society are keen to use their collection to remind tourists of the time that American aircraft massed in readiness for D-Day.

This would be an ideal site for a police museum. There would be ample parking, with easy access for coaches and opportunities to team up with others in attracting visitors and looking at ventures that raise revenue.

Although the small site at Knock set aside for the museum is free and there would be cost implications with another site, the cost-per-acre in the area around the Maze would be in the low tens of thousands of pounds, which in the context of the overall cost is very reasonable.

Security is an obvious concern, but not insurmountable. In any case, there is a need to develop a virtual online museum in tandem with the more conventional one.

Many people around the world would be interested to know that it was two Irishmen who, as the first joint commissioners of the London Metropolitan Police, helped mould the English Bobby, or that both America's first state police force and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were both modelled on the Royal Irish Constabulary.

The story of how the police in Ireland have always had to operate against a difficult political backdrop not of their making needs to be told – without fear, or favour. There is a huge amount of material that needs to be made accessible and appealing to the wider audience – not just in-depth history buffs.

In a direct appeal to the trustees of the RUC George Cross Foundation and its future chairman, Alan McQuillan urges them "to think carefully and deliver a museum to a design and on a site that's accessible.

"A physical museum on the right site – combined with other related attractions – might be a real tourist magnet.

"Coupled with an online museum, it could be a really valuable asset and a fitting tribute to those who gave everything to serve their communities."

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