We agree on very little here in Northern Ireland, and the story of our past is told and viewed from an array of perspectives. Possibly the only thing that could be agreed upon is the fact that there was a violent period known as the Troubles from the late 60’s to the early 90’s. I stand to be corrected, but I think that is the one uncontrovertible statement that can stand unchallenged. As we emerge from those Troubles, and the shared past, we will need to find a common story and a place where it can be told, or different versions of that story can be told or housed. I recently visited the Maze Prison site on a tour, and found it to be a profound and disturbing trip, and one that left me shaken and contemplative. An Italian friend on the visit struggled to find a word to describe the Maze and the buildings we visited, but in the end he said ‘It is an Ugly place that has an ugly story’. It may be ugly but its ours. The site at the Maze has been the source of much controversy, and much of that has been understandable. In some societies like Rwanda, emerging from the past has been possible by repressing story telling and in other countries, History is not taught in schools for 10 years post conflict.
There is concern that there will be a dominant presence of Republicanism on the site, and that it will be turned into a Shrine to the hunger strikers. Thats quite an interesting point, and one that was forcibly demonstrated for me on my visit. The hospital block was particularly poignant, and the cells where the hunger strikers died are all pointed out. A group of teenagers were visiting and listening to the guide read out the names of which prisoner died in which cell. As he completed the list, there was a hush over the crowd, then broken by spontaneous applause from the visitors. Those men will never be anything but heroes to some people, no matter who revisits, reconstructs or revises the history. It will be a shrine despite what anyone can do to prevent that from happening.
I found it to be a haunting place, with the mark of decay and rot hanging oppresively in the air. Sounds are accentuated, like the bolts in the being slammed back. I mentioned to an ex-prisoner that I found the whole thing very daunting, and he told me to step into a cell to get a proper feel for the place. He then slammed the door shut, to the outrage of the guide who explained that the doors didn’t open. I thought it was a joke, but it wasnt. I pushed at the door to no avail, and then sat on the cot looking out through the narrow windows. Chilling. Eventually, with much pushing and pulling we got the door open, but it was a brief encounter with fear and isolation that will remain with me.
The tour includes a visit to a Watch Tower, the Loyalist wing and education annexe, the Administration block and a H-Block. As part of the plan, these buildings have been listed and will be retained to tell the story of the Maze in the future. But it has to be a complete story. I was involved once with a Prison Warden who had a nervous breakdown during the Dirty Protest, he couldn’t cope with what was happening. These too were men who were there to do a job and make a living. They are part of the story and need to be remembered and involved with their part in this piece of our history. As do the prisoners from Loyalist organisations who were there. Gusty Spence apparently used to ask the men on arrival why they ended up in the Kesh. Invariably the answers were ‘I got caught’ or ‘I blew up a building’. Spence made them think about the real reasons for being there, to look beyond the aspect of just being caught up in something. He made them find what it was that they believed in.
We will never share a commonality of belief, and that should not even be an aspiration. What we can do is have courage and respect and find it in ourselves collectively to allow space for each of us involved to find what it was they believed in and commemorate it with dignity and respect in a shared environment. Equality in the remembrance of the Loyalists, Republicans and Prison staff who all made sacrifices and suffered at this Ugly Place. By definition it cannot be easy, but it could represent a stage in an acceptance of a shared past and the beginnings of a shared future.