Bulldozing history?

Published in Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2005), News, News, Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 13

Long Kesh prison camp, or HMP Maze as it was later renamed in the mid-1970s, sits on a 360-acre site just outside Lisburn, Co. Antrim. It’s the site where, over a four-year period from 1971 to 1975, the British government oversaw the internment without trial of its own citizens. It’s the place where in 1981 the British government allowed an elected member of its own parliament to die on hunger strike rather than concede to his demands to be treated as a political prisoner. It’s the same prison where another nine hunger strikers died that year, including Kieran Doherty, an elected member of Dáil Éireann. It’s the prison camp that housed the infamous H-blocks, the very same blocks from which republican prisoners escaped en masse in 1983 in the biggest crisis ever to hit the British penal system. As such, Long Kesh is recognised as a historic site with an official notice of listing from the Environment and Heritage Service following a vigorous lobbying campaign by Coiste na nIarchimí.
Shortly after Long Kesh closed in July 2000 following the release of all remaining political prisoners under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, there were calls from within the unionist community to demolish the prison. As one British minister put it, ‘Let’s bulldoze it into history’. An interesting comment; if only it was so easy to erase such a site from the memories of the thousands who were affected and injured by its presence (including loyalist prisoners and prison officers).
Long Kesh has a story to tell. For me, the most important one is that the imprisonment of people without trial, or at the end of a dubious legal process in a non-jury court, is not the way to deal with political conflict and the demands of a people to be treated as fully equal citizens. In that sense, what occurred in Long Kesh is not unique; it has happened often enough before in Ireland over the centuries, and in other colonial situations worldwide, but surely we must attempt to learn from it on this occasion.
Coiste na nIarchimí envisage the building of a campus for conflict resolution on the site: a place that could have strategic and inspirational significance as a place of reflection, dialogue, academic excellence and administrative development focused on conflict resolution and the Good Friday Agreement as a model of transition from conflict to peace. The setting would facilitate dialogue not just on the conflict in and about the north of Ireland but also on international colonial/ethnic conflict resolution, with conference and research facilities aimed at a variety of levels.
Our proposal for an integrated campus includes the following elements.
l An interactive museum that focuses on transition from conflict to peace and incorporates one H-block, one internment cage, the prison hospital and administration buildings. What the space is used for (exhibitions, etc.) should be taken forward by an inclusive stakeholder trust.
l Administrative, meeting and conference facilities relating to the north/south and east/west administrative arrangements that underpin the Peace Process. The site would therefore become a focus for the inter-relationships on and between the islands of Ireland and Britain.
l A peace park as a place of reflection for all victims/survivors. With sensitive landscaping and potential for public art, the park could mark an imaginative contribution towards moving away from conflict.
This integrated campus would allow for the site to become a symbol of where we have come from and how we should avoid a return to such a situation ever again. A range of key stakeholders would benefit, including victims/survivors (including ex-prisoners, former prison officers and family members); school pupils and the academic community; international practitioners and activists in conflicts and their resolution; politicians and parliamentarians; the tourism sector; and civil servants.
The proposal would be an imaginative and inclusive landmark that would have the capacity to generate significant income from tourism, museum/peace park visits and conference facilities. Building links to first-, second- and third-level educational institutions, the campus could become a destination for visitors from all over Ireland and further afield. With its focus on peace-building and genuine respect for victims/survivors, and recognising the commitment of all (including ex-prisoners) to building the peace, Coiste’s proposal could become a beacon of hope to contribute to the process of reconciliation across the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain.
Long Kesh is a place that everyone with an interest in resolving conflicts, or preventing them, should visit and learn from. It’s a place where hopefully one day soon former prisoners and their families will be able to stroll, reminisce, cry and laugh, and maybe in this way bring some closure to the hurtful memories, the loss, the separation, the years of waiting. It’s a place that schools should have on their curriculum to visit, and in that way would help to educate a new generation.
For myself, as I walk through its now-open gates and grilles, I experience a mixture of powerful emotions. Retracing steps around the exercise yard where for years I strolled with comrades, I can recall the personal conversations, the political debates, the scéal from the outside world; laughter, anxiety, hope, frustration, pain; intimate moments in the lives of so many young men who grew from teenagers to adulthood in this British prison in Ireland.
Knowing that I can walk out of the prison at any moment strips the razor-wire fences, walls and lookout posts of the power they once had, making them appear a little ridiculous. Looking out through a cell window to the yard beyond I now see the green leaves of a sturdy bush where once there were only different shades of grey. It has overcome tarmac and concrete to stand tall and blossoming. On the metal fortifications, rust paints its own distinctive mark. Together, nature and the elements have brought vibrancy and colour to that which man had made dull, drab and lifeless.
And I’m reminded of how naked young men wrapped in blankets also defied the creators of this place of incarceration; the singsongs we once had in these wings, the quizzes and the banter between friends; the human spirit rising and soaring high above the conditions of material deprivation, enjoying the moment because we didn’t know what the next day would bring. And as my young daughters, Caoilfhionn and Órlaith, playfully race across the prison yard, the words of Bobby Sands, who spent the last years of his young life in this prison, come to mind: ‘Let our revenge be the laughter of our children’. Indeed.

Laurence McKeown is an activist with Coiste na nIarchimí, an umbrella organisation of republican ex-prisoners founded in 1998, which lobbies against the social, economic, legal and societal barriers faced by political ex-prisoners and their families.

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