The final seventy-eight republican and loyalist prisoners are released from the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland on July 28, 2000 as the final phase of the Good Friday peace accord scheme to release 428 inmates early.
Some of the most prolific bombers and gunmen involved in the Troubles have been imprisoned in the Maze, originally called Long Kesh, since it opened in 1971.
One of the freed republicans, Seán Lynch, describes what he saw as the real and symbolic importance of the Maze. “We had achieved the status of political prisoners even if the British Government never admitted it. The prison struggle was a microcosm of the larger struggle.”
Founder member of the Ulster Defence Association, Thomas McKeown, released in 1990 is one of over 10,000 loyalists sent to the prison. He reflects, “We had it pretty easy. We made replica weapons and instruments from wood and conducted military parades and drill every morning. There were also political classes and other sorts of education.”
After the H-block hunger strikes of the 1980s there are numerous escape attempts and by 1994 the authorities have given in to many of the prisoners’ demands for freedom of association and high levels of autonomy. A total of 2,700 incidents of officers being threatened or attacked are reported. A granite memorial outside the gates bears the names of the 29 prison guards murdered since the prison opened in 1971.
On September 29, 2000, the remaining four prisoners at the Maze are transferred to other prisons in Northern Ireland and the Maze Prison is closed. Redundancy packages are arranged for staff. These are accepted by 300 who left in June 2000.
The future of the buildings is uncertain, but some republicans want it to be turned into a museum to commemorate their struggle.
A monitoring group is set up on January 14, 2003 to debate the future of the 360-acre site. There are many proposals, including a museum, a multi-purpose sports stadium and an office, hotel and leisure village. In January 2006, the government unveils a masterplan for the site incorporating many of these proposals, including a 45,000 seat national multi-sport stadium for association football, rugby and Gaelic games. In October 2006, demolition work begins in preparation for construction on the site, however, in January 2009 plans to build the new multi-purpose stadium are cancelled, with Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure Gregory Campbell citing a lack of support and concerns for a net loss to the economy.
Discussion is still ongoing as to the listed status of sections of the old prison. The hospital and part of the H-Blocks are currently listed buildings, and will remain as part of the proposed site redevelopment as a “conflict transformation centre” with support from republicans such as Martin McGuinness and opposition from unionists, who consider that this risks creating “a shrine to the IRA.”
In January 2013, plans are approved by the Northern Ireland Minister of the Environment, Alex Attwood, for the site to be redeveloped as showgrounds as the result of an application by the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society with the objective of relocating Balmoral Show from its current location in Belfast. The site is now known as Balmoral Park.
(Pictured: IRA prisoners walk out through the Maze turnstile, BBC News Online, July 28, 2000)