There are many reasons why the decision of Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson MLA to do a complete u-turn on plans for the development of the site of the former Maze Prison is a set-back for a political process that seems to be in a state of rapid decline – but for me one of the greatest losses of all, is the loss of a site of profound learning.
There have been a number of attempts – including a rather poor one by the Ulster Museum – to create a sanitised narrative of our recent past. There has been abject failure to teach our young people about our recent conflict so that they can learn from the many, many mistakes that were made on all sides. Meanwhile young people living in the toughest social realities – compounded by ‘interfaces’ and the sectarian organising of our society – become prey to the latest forms of sectarian inspired violence – drawn into ‘dissident’ groups and violent street protests that they barely understand the reasons for.
I have visited the Maze Long Kesh site a number of times now. In my early youth, I went with the Peace People, who brought a minibus packed with the wives, girlfriends, mothers and children of ‘political’ prisoners for their weekly visits. In recent times I have been part of one of the working groups looking at how the site might become a space of learning, reflection and that word our politicians seems so nervous of these days – reconciliation.
Reconciliation is not a comfortable process. I remember John Paul Lederach telling a Belfast audience that reconciliation does not mean to forgive and forget, but rather to remember and change. I felt the sheer pain of it in my recent involvement with the ‘Victims and Survivor’s Forum’ – where individuals struggle not only with their own emotional and often physical pain, but also with the challenges of being in the room with others who in many senses represent those who inflicted the pain in the first place. On one visit to the Maze site I was struck at how much more impact it had on me than a number of visits to the wonderfully restored, but utterly sanitised (of modern references) Crumlin Road Gaol. There was an eerie atmosphere at the Maze prison – in a place that remains pretty much as it was left relatively recently – which had such a profound impact on so many people’s lives.
Those working on the plans were at pains to point out that there would be no interpretation of the site. This was part of the delicate compromises worked out over years of thoughtful planning and negotiation. My thought was that it ought to be a place for people to listen to multiple narratives – many of which ought to make them deeply uncomfortable. Yes – the stories of the prisoners and their reasons for ending up in that place are important – but so are many other stories – including those of prison officers and the victims of the many heinous acts which make up what we refer to as ‘the Troubles’. Beyond this you have the stories of the many families associated with all these individuals and stories. The kids who were born and grew up knowing a father only through the tightly controlled visits, the partners whose lives were tightly controlled in their communities to ensure they were living up to the expectations of ‘prisoner’s wives’, the children of prison officers and other members of the security forces who could not tell even their closest friends what their father or mother did for a living.
Each of these narratives would contradict at least some of the others. Each should leave the listener a little more uncomfortable and challenged. Each should work to humanise even those people our political beliefs try to dismiss or demonise. The thought of the prison site becoming a ‘shrine’ always struck me as a little ridiculous – as only the most narrow-minded of people could fail to think – in that place – about the many wasted lives, the many hardships, the pain, violence and frustration that are represented in its walls.
Beside the remaining prison buildings was to be an international centre for the ‘Peace Building and Conflict Resolution Centre’ designed by the internationally renowned Daniel Liebskind (who I had the immense pleasure of meeting) – which would provide a profound contrast to the prison and the planned airforce museum. This centre could have been a world-leading site for peace-building work around the globe – given the huge interest in Northern Ireland and our recent history.
I suspect the site will be moth-balled until a better political atmosphere emerges – but given that we are heading into 4 elections over the next 3 years, it could be quite some time before these conditions exist, and meanwhile the site will continue to deteriorate, and the opportunity for learning is lost. What we are also losing is many of the people who spend significant parts of their lives there, and their memories of the many events big and small that make up the disturbing and human narrative of this space. As a youth worker, I know the profound potency of well organised situated learning. Maze Long Kesh is one of the most powerful sites of learning I have been in.
In addition to the millions of pounds and euro that will be lost in funding, and the thousands of jobs that the construction and operation of the site would have created, there is a much less tangible cost that we are paying. The opportunity to expose our children to the disturbing narratives of our past – so that we can work with them to construct a new future.