Unionists, the Maze prison and Bobby Sands

The former Maze prison and hunger striker Bobby Sands

The former Maze prison and hunger striker Bobby Sands

UNIONISTS opposed to building an international peace centre at the former Maze prison fear it will be used to remember ten republicans who starved themselves to death in a demand to be treated as political prisoners. But given that other stories from the conflict will also be told at the site, why does the dramatic prison protest from decades ago still raise unionist hackles? Steven McCaffery reports.

WHEN Bobby Sands died on May 5, 1981, following a 66 day hunger strike, it was global news.

The House of Commons formally announced the death of one of its members – avoiding the traditional condolences for the IRA leader elected in a bitterly fought by-election as his life ebbed away – but elsewhere much of the reaction pouring in from the US, Russia, the Middle East, Asia and across Europe, was sympathetic.

Britain was on the backfoot – its familiar condemnations of the “men of violence” proved inadequate in the face of the smiling 27-year-old whose picture was carried at protest rallies around the world.

Unionists who are now campaigning against the plans for a prestigious conflict resolution centre near the prison buildings where Bobby Sands died have proposed alternative locations – including the Crumlin Road jail in nearby Belfast where republicans were also held and, during an earlier phase in history, even executed.

So if the problem isn’t prisoners in general, is it one in particular?

More than 30 years after the hunger strikes, critics of the republican movement can easily point to the many IRA atrocities that followed the complex events inside the infamous H-blocks, but somehow the story of the strike and its leader Bobby Sands still appears to raise concerns for some unionists.

“They do struggle,” says Laurence McKeown, a former hunger striker who survived the jail protest.

“And they get into all sorts of somersaults about the prison and what happened, and just total distortions of history.

“The history of unionism is of a one party state from partition – they ruled it. It was an Orange state. And then it started to crumble.

“And I think the hunger strike smashed it, because it touched the real, I suppose core of the nationalist people – something I probably never realised until later years, because when you’re involved in it inside the prison, you don’t see the impact of it outside. It changed the psyche of nationalist people.”

The Maze prison closed in 2000, but in the decades before that, the area then known as Long Kesh was a World War II airbase, before becoming a detention centre for the mainly nationalist internees jailed without trial at the start of the Troubles, plus the site of subsequent republican jail protests, the ’81 hunger strike, and the mass breakout of 38 IRA prisoners in 1983.

A number of prison buildings were given listed status, with the retained portion of the complex including one of the H-shaped cell blocks and the hospital where the hunger strikers died, though the structures are only part of a massive 350 acre area.

But Rev Mervyn Gibson, a Grand Chaplain of the Orange Order, argues that if there is any unionist fear over the Maze, it is that the story of the hunger strike will come to over-shadow the memory of the many other lives taken during the brutal decades of the Troubles.

“The hunger strike, for the unionist community, is seen as 10 republicans who killed themselves, who were in prison for crimes.

“I don’t see that sophistication in the argument against the site. People are just frightened it becomes a shrine to an IRA terrorist.

“Everyone has got their memorials around the countryside, but this one appears to be on a multi-million pound peace centre.”

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at a hunger strike exhibition

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at a hunger strike exhibition


For all its grim history, the Maze became an important platform for the peace process, when republican and loyalist prisoners threw their weight behind the calls for ceasefires and political negotiations.

And the hunger strike and the death of republicans led by Bobby Sands are widely seen as having propelled Sinn Féin’s political growth.

Today it is a party of government in Northern Ireland, under the stewardship of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and an emerging political player in the Irish Republic where party leader Gerry Adams is now based.

That back-story and the totemic significance of the hunger strike to modern republicans is a further source of suspicion for unionists who note the project’s importance to Sinn Féin.

But Laurence McKeown believes it is the wider narrative that concerns opponents.

“The jail was first opened as an internment camp and that was a response to a government system, an Orange State, whatever you want to call it, to nationalists looking their rights.

“Then the hunger strike did get sympathy around the world, particularly in parts of the world where Britain were previously the imperial governors.

“And I suppose a hunger strike in any sense captures that emotion because it’s not people killing somebody, it’s the people themselves saying `I am giving my own life for this cause, rather than be criminalised’.

“So this is our story and other people have their stories, but the two are intimately connected. The hunger strike, Long Kesh itself, and the northern state.

“And that’s why I think the hunger strike goes to the very heart, and why people voted for Bobby Sands who wouldn’t have particularly liked the IRA or agreed with it or whatever else, but the hunger strike I suppose summed up for them their understanding, as nationalists or Catholics in the northern state.”

Former hunger striker Laurence McKeown is a playwright who has written about Maze/Long Kesh

Former hunger striker Laurence McKeown is a playwright who has written about Maze/Long Kesh

The former prisoner has come to prominence as an author and playwright, and he has also taken part in a series of cross-community initiatives aimed at helping those damaged by the years of conflict to begin healing their wounds.

He says he believes all stories can and must be told – including the stories of loyalists, police and the army – for the benefit of society as a whole.

“Everybody’s story has to be told and everybody has a right to tell that story and tell it in a way that is appropriate for them.”

After one unionist representative claimed the story of Bobby Sands may not be told at the new Maze site, the former prisoner said: “You can’t say `let’s look at the history of Derry but don’t mention Bloody Sunday’.

“It actually takes on a far greater importance once you try to ignore it, it becomes the elephant in the room – rather than saying, `Yes, there was a hunger strike, here’s what happened and there were other people who died, either during the hunger strike or throughout the 30 years’.

“You elevate it when you ignore it, whereas when you say `Yes, this is where it happened’, then members of another community can say `Well, there was other people killed, and these people who were in jail killed people’.

“So yes, let’s talk about that as well.”


The official unveiling this week of the plans for the Maze/Long Kesh Development Corporation (MLKDC) heard claims that it could attract 5,000 permanent jobs and investment valued at hundreds of millions.

The European Union has approved funding of £18million for the ambitious `Peace Building and Conflict Resolution Centre’ designed by architect Daniel Libeskind who re-imagined Ground Zero in New York.

But it is only part of an expansive location which this year becomes the new home of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society and its annual Balmoral show, while politicians are also hopeful of attracting other major developments.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is now overseeing the project with Sinn Féin despite tension in unionist ranks, has said the location will also record the stories of the security force personnel who worked there, as well as the site’s World War II history.

The landmark peace centre, situated separately from the prison buildings, will include conference and study space to accommodate research and education projects on the peace process in the hope of providing positive lessons to other global trouble spots.

It has also been suggested that the new facility could provide a venue for some form of `story-telling’, where the experience of all those affected by the Troubles can be recorded.

A coalition of unionist voices led by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) is objecting to the peace centre being located at the prison site and wants it moved.

The DUP says aspects of the prison’s retention were advanced under the UUP’s watch, years before the Democratic Unionists supplanted their opponents as the largest unionist bloc.

But that has not prevented Ulster Unionists from going on the attack.

The current Maze plans gathered momentum in early 2012 when European leaders confirmed funding for the scheme.

At that time it perhaps seemed a more straightforward task for the DUP to support the proposals, since the retained prison buildings were already protected by their listed status, and it was therefore futile to avoid redeveloping the remaining site.

But the job of selling the project to sceptical unionists has become more difficult after the recent loyalist backlash against the decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag from Belfast city hall.

The change in mood has added an edge to claims that the Maze/Long Kesh blueprint will create a “shrine to terrorism”, but DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson dismisses the concerns as “absurd” and “scaremongering garbage”.

When he and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness launched the redevelopment plan, they both pledged the creation of a “shrine to peace”.

Mr Robinson has said that a script telling the history of the site has yet to be agreed, but nothing will proceed without his personal approval.

Mervyn Gibson worked to ease tension in east Belfast over the city hall's Union flag policy

Mervyn Gibson worked to ease tension in east Belfast over the city hall's Union flag policy

Rev Mervyn Gibson, who is a former member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), says he believes the Maze touches raw emotions for many people, especially in the unionist community.

“I think it’s because it’s in living memory,” he says.

“Because if you analyse it, [IRA member] Tom Williams was hung in Crumlin Road jail [in 1942] and his cell is still there – the death cell is still there.

“It could equally become a shrine to him, but his murder of a policeman isn’t within the community memory.

“So I don’t think it’s the hunger strikes personally are so iconic, it’s the point that it’s within living memory and the centre will be so close to it that is creating the difficulty.

“There is also no credence given to other sites. If as much money and effort and international status had been poured into sites that would tell the story of the RUC, the UDR, the army, as well as the one for Bobby Sands, then that might have made a difference.

“But it looks as though it’s being poured into Bobby Sands and that vicinity, and the booby prize is two aircraft hangars – just because there’s World War II aircraft, we’re supposed to jump up and down and say this is wonderful. That’s the crumbs off the table.

“But I think if it had have been packaged in a way that there were other centres that people could go to and they all had equal standing and fed into the main centre, the location would probably still be a bit of an annoyance, but it would be an easier pill to swallow.”

He says the existing plan to build a police museum at the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) headquarters in Belfast will include the story of the historic Royal Irish Constabulary and the modern police service, a move which he claims will “neutralise the story of the RUC in there”.

He suggests, as an alternative RUC museum, the rebuilding of the former police barracks at Loughgall in Co Armagh, where the SAS killed eight IRA members planning to bomb the base in 1987, and where a civilian was killed in the cross-fire.

“It could be restored as a rural RUC station, to recall the sacrifice of people, men and women, who served as officers and part-time officers,” he says. “It’s just one idea.”

A watchtower on the perimeter of the former top security Maze prison.

A watchtower on the perimeter of the former top security Maze prison.

But on the wider front, he feels that no consideration has been given to the telling of the broader story of the Troubles.

“People say it will be told. It needs to be in there now, not promises down the road.”

He remains to be convinced about the Maze plan.

“I have to say I have mixed feelings, I am undecided about it.

“But I think they have created difficulties by not broadening it out to clearly articulate how other people’s stories are going to be told.

“There are a lot of stories there that need to be told but unfortunately the one that is being told first and the one that’s getting the prominence and all of the money is cheek and jowl with the hunger strike.

“That needs to be tied down. People don’t trust that the stories will be neutral.”

Only days before the Maze/Long Kesh plan was officially unveiled, an event highlighting the victims of republican violence heard the striking account of how one woman lost four members of her family.

She still mourns for three brothers and a sister – all security force members who died during the Troubles.

While unionists ask where such stories will fit in the future arrangements, nationalists have their own anxieties over paramilitary violence, including the scale of State collusion with loyalists.

The row over the Maze highlights again how deeply divided Northern Ireland society remains: separate political parties, separate schools, separate communities, and often even separate perspectives on the past.

Opponents fighting a last gasp battle against the Maze plans are accused of scaremongering, or at worst, of trying to run away from history.

But some unionists fear that the dominance of the hunger strike story could leave them at a disadvantage – having to go further in explaining their case, explaining their experience, and explaining their wider view of the Troubles.

And in politics, when you’re explaining, you’re losing.