For sale: maximum security paramilitary prison, perfect location (but no mod cons)

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The Independent Online

For sale: extensive set of heavy-duty buildings, well maintained until lately; previously occupied by tens of thousands of dissatisfied residents.

For sale: extensive set of heavy-duty buildings, well maintained until lately; previously occupied by tens of thousands of dissatisfied residents.

A description of the Maze Prison does not translate particularly convincingly into estate agent jargon, but the authorities are now in the business of turning one of the world's most notorious prisons into something more attractive.

The sprawling 360-acre site presents a genuine opportunity for big developments, sitting as it does just over 10 miles from Belfast, close to a motorway and within easy reach of two airports.

The most likely use, the authorities say, is for tourism and recreation. A national stadium for Northern Ireland is one hopeful suggestion.

David Campbell, chairman of the Maze Consultation Panel, which is looking into possible uses for the prison, said: "Proposals must meet the objectives of finding something new and innovative - the creation of an internationally recognised beacon for Northern Ireland."

Whatever the future holds for the Maze, many ghosts have yet to be exorcised in its bleak, damp and now unoccupied environment. The prisoners were released following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and today its corridors are empty.

It used to take a thousand staff to run the place, carrying on a ceaseless battle for control waged between the authorities and the prisoners, republican and loyalist.

Now just three caretakers keep an eye on the two miles of high wall which enclose the famous, or infamous H-blocks, and all the other relics of paramilitary imprisonment. Once it was maximum security; now rusting gates are casually left unlocked, huge heavy doors swing with a shove and some windows are smashed.

IRA men and loyalists died in this place in various ways, while outside the jail their associates shot dead more than two dozen prison personnel. A granite monument to murdered staff stands in the grounds. Presumably it will eventually be moved to another prison establishment.

The republican hungerstrikes of 1981 convulsed all of Northern Ireland as 10 inmates starved themselves to death for political status. They could never have foreseen it then, but their sacrifices paved the way for Sinn Fein's position today as the largest nationalist party.

The hungerstriker, Bobby Sands, died in the prison hospital, becoming republicanism's most revered martyr. Today it is a damp and cheerless place with peeling paint. The cell where he expired is small and dark, and layers of bars and reinforced plastic sheeting block out much of the light.

Although the H-blocks are intact, another part of the complex holds a much earlier part of the jail. These are the Nissen huts from the Second World War, which in the early 1970s housed interned republicans such as Gerry Adams, now president of Sinn Fein.

Some of the huts are still more or less sound, but others are gradually sagging into heaps of corroded metal. Barbed wire fences have keeled over, windows are broken and doors hang on one hinge. The republicans called these makeshift quarters "cages".

In his book Cage Eleven Mr Adams called it "this bastard of a place".

Recalling his unsuccessful attempts to escape, he wrote that in a tunnel he panicked when the man in front of him farted. "They never let me go down again," he wrote.

Whatever the Maze becomes in the years ahead, republicans are pressing for some part to be preserved as a museum. One said: "I want my children to be able to go there and learn from the mistakes of the past."

Demolishing the place will cost millions, because a large part of it is constructed of particularly strong reinforced concrete. Planning its new future will take years, but the hope is that this symbol of conflict will, eventually, be dismantled and begin a more constructive life.

Life in the Maze

1971 - Long Kesh Detention Centre built for paramilitary prisoners

1976 - Prisoners move into new H-Blocks, the HM Maze Prison. Republicans refuse to wear prison uniforms, beginning the "Blanket Protest".

1978 - The "Dirty Protest", prisoners refuse to "slop out", smear excrement on walls.

27 October 1980 - Six republican prisoners go on hunger strike until December.

1 March 1981 - Bobby Sands, right, begins second hunger strike.

5 May 1981 - Sands dies on day 66 of his strike. Nine other inmates die, without demands being met.

September 1983 - Escape by 38 IRA inmates; one prison officer is killed.

December 1997 - The loyalist paramilitary leader, Billy Wright, is shot by INLA prisoners. Revenge attacks byLoyalist Volunteer Force damage peace process.

January 1998 - Visit by Mo Mowlam credited with saving peace process.

September 1998 - First prisoners released under the Good Friday Agreement.

29 September 2000 - The Maze closes. Four remaining prisoners transferred.