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12 June 2003 Edition

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Coiste proposes museum for Long Kesh

CAOIMHÍN Mac GIOLLA MHÍN explains Coiste na nIarchimí's proposals for the retention of parts of Long Kesh as a museum

Coiste na n-Iarchimí, the republican ex-prisoner network, has for some time been seeking to promote the idea that part of Long Kesh should be preserved as a heritage site. To this end, Coiste hosted a conference titled A museum at Long Kesh or the Maze? on Wednesday 4 June in the Lagan Valley Island Centre, Lisburn.

We felt that the time was right to convene a more formal gathering to share ideas and promote discussion more widely amongst relevant sectors.

The purpose of the conference was:

* to promote debate and discussion as to what could be done creatively, inclusively and with sensitivity with the site;

* to give arguments as to why it is important that something is maintained of the site; and

* to discuss what process would be most appropriate to take the issue further.

The timing of the conference was designed to contribute to the deliberations of the Consultative Panel established by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister to consider the future of the site. This panel has recently been established and will be meeting through the rest of 2003.

Why a museum at Long Kesh?

We believe the former prison site should be turned into a museum because of its community and historical significance. Specifically:

* It is the prison associated with the conflict in and about the Six Counties in the last decades of the 20th century. Not only does the site chart the development of custody policy from POW internment camps through to cellular confinement, the resistance to criminalisation and the development of virtual POW status by the 1990s, but it also mirrored and informed the development of the conflict outside the walls.

* It housed perhaps 25,000 republican and loyalist prisoners. 15,000 prison officers worked there. The families of all these 40,000 people were intimately concerned with the place. So around 200,000 people (or 1 in 8 of the population of the 6 Counties) would have a strong connection with the site. The scale of the social and emotional capital associated with the place is very strong

* According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has visited political prisons across the globe, Long Kesh/The Maze had the strongest community links of any prison in the world. This makes it an unique example of international prison history. It was indeed an icon and a microcosm of the conflict.

* It is an example of contested space, contested histories and contested policies. As a focus for education on the conflict and continuing divisions, there could hardly be a better venue. This is particularly so in relation to the discussion as to whether the Troubles were a war/conflict or whether it was - as British government policy sought to have it - an aggravated crime wave. As a focus for discussion on the issue of criminalisation, resistance and all that flowed from it in terms of prison management, once again the site would be a brilliant venue for discussion of prison policy as an example of wider conflict resolution theory and practice.

* Collective memory is an important facet of continuing divisions. A site which has affected so many people and a discussion as to how to use such contested space would provide many opportunities for people to reflect on how they would tell - and exhibit - their story, their perspective, artefacts associated with the prison and views on current wider political developments.

What is the process we are suggesting?

The 360-acre site comprises eight H Blocks, a gym, an administrative building, a hospital, trades workshops, two large aircraft type hangers, a dog-training building and several temporary buildings. Finally, some of the former cages (from the time of internment) are still standing. An approximate mapping exercise indicates that the site is equivalent to Belfast city centre from Ormeau Avenue, down Oxford Street to the Dunbar Link and back up Queen Street to Great Victoria Street. The area we are proposing is 2 or 3 blocks. This comparison indicates that there is room for a multitude of other activities and installations in the available acreage.

The site is still in the hands of the Prison Service, which is running down "residual functions" over the next year. It will then be formally handed over to the government. A cross-party consultation panel has been appointed to consider what should be done with the site and make recommendations to government.

Our proposals are:

That an agreed set of buildings be conserved pending the next steps. We feel as a minimum one H Block, one cage or compound, the administration building and the hospital should be retained. This comprises about 5% of the site;
That a stakeholder trust should be established which would be representative of the range of interested parties: prison officers and governors, loyalist and republican ex-prisoners, families, Lisburn Council, the museums and tourism sectors, victims organisations and the wider community;
A first task for the trust would be to agree the values and principles that should inform the museum and its uses. A particularly important part of this process would be how to address the real and sensitive questions of memory and loss - both for the ex-prisoner community and those killed and injured as a result of their activities;
Only at this stage would the trust develop a business plan and funding strategy;
Design and use of the buildings and the spaces could then be agreed. This should include the potential for education, conflict resolution theory and practice and the creative arts.
If no consensual agreement is possible in the early stages, two possibilities should be considered:
The site could remain "empty" and simply be a place for reflection rather than "cluttered" with exhibits
Alternatively, there would be allocation of separate spaces for the various stakeholders, as a reflection of the state of division still existing within the community. It would be an interesting case study to see how, over time, representations might develop and overall consensus take shape.

What do we say to those who are worried that it will be used as a republican shrine?

The key question here is whether this "fear" is actually that people don't want the republican story told. We are not interested in a shrine - republicans are, in any case, political and not religious.

If the question is a genuine one, it probably arises as a result of misapprehensions and misunderstandings, which are themselves the result of conflict, division and decades of not talking to each other. Essentially, this is a matter that would be addressed by the stakeholder trust in the formulation of its charter of values and principles. But an inclusive approach must emphasise that everyone has a right to tell their story. The dialogue and interaction of the various stories and how they are told will be an important conceptual "exhibit" of the museum.

Key Conclusions

Our proposals concern:

Education about the past for the future: this is what museums should be about. The potential of the site as an artefact in and of itself - as well as objects which might be displayed in it - for teaching about history and the impact of the conflict on people is self-evident.
Employment and economic development: as part of an integrated package of proposals for the site overall, the museum idea could provide tourism potential for the area as well as employment on the site itself. The amount of employment will depend on the scale and range of functions on the site.
A heritage site for future generations: heritage is about sites of importance and not simply about the architectural value of buildings.
A key site for reflection on conflict resolution theory and practice: the functions in the buildings have the potential to transcend the symbolic divisiveness of the site when it was a functioning prison. Conflict resolution is a growing international discipline. A Long Kesh centre would fit neatly into this web of reflection and co-operation.
A case study in learning to deal with difference: if an inclusive group were able to take forward the proposals, it would be an important case study of success in a political environment of surrounding depression.

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