The issue of the “national” sports stadium has proved to the most controversial to arise in the two months since the restoration of the Stormont Executive and Assembly. Combining grandiose pretension, parochialism and sectarianism, and founded on a policy of privatisation, the proposed stadium has come to symbolise all that is rotten about the new political settlement.
The stadium has its origins in the first short-lived executive, which commissioned a report on the feasibility of a national sports stadium at the former Maze/Long Kesh site. A panel made up of representatives of sporting bodies and nominees of the political parties was established to come up with a plan for the site. The final report of the panel, which was endorsed by all the political parties, proposed the building of a 35,000-seater facility that would be a venue for Gaelic sports, soccer and rugby games. In addition to a stadium and other sporting facilities, there was also to be “a conflict resolution centre” that would highlight the role of the former prison site in “The Troubles”. A number of the buildings such as the prison hospital, internment huts, and a H-block wing are to be preserved for this purpose. The claim made for the centre is that it will demonstrate to other parts of the world how conflict could be transformed into peace. It is to be a showcase of the Irish peace process.
The controversy over the sports stadium focuses on the inclusion of the conflict resolution centre on the site. Despite its vague and woolly mission statement, the centre is too much for some unionists. The DUP’s Sammy Wilson has dismissed the plans for the Maze as “ludicrous”, and branded the proposed conflict resolution centre a “terror museum”. His party colleague and executive minister Nigel Dodds claimed that “the price for Sinn Fein support for the Maze project” would be “a shrine to IRA terrorism”. The novel aspect of this is that the minister responsible for the proposed stadium is Edwin Poots of the DUP. He agrees with them about the “theorist shrine”, but argues that a stadium on the Maze site is the best way to prevent this. He told the most recent meeting of the Assembly Culture Committee that there was a “far greater potential for a shrine to be developed if that's (the remaining prison buildings) the only thing left of the site.” Poots also pushed the discussion in an overtly sectarian direction by suggesting that the GAA had refused to contemplate playing a stadium located elsewhere. Unionists seized on this, accusing the GAA of wielding a veto over a Belfast stadium.
Essentially the dispute within the DUP is over the best strategy to erase the political connotations associated with the Maze site. They both aim to wipe out the memory of the Maze/Long Kesh as a political prison and to deny that the struggle that resulted in thousands of people going through the prisons arose from any legitimate grievances. There is also a element of parochialism motivating these arguments with those most opposed to the Maze site representing Belfast constituencies, and Edwin Poots, whose Lagan Valley constituency includes the Maze, supporting it. The DUP leader and First Minister Ian Paisley has cine out against a Belfast location as one of the possible sites, the Ormeau Park, faces his Martyrs Memorial church. He said he was appalled by the prospect of sports being played near by during a service. In terms of reaction they have all been trumped by their former DUP colleague Jim Allister. He favours the Taliban approach of de-listing and demolishing every prison related building on the Maze site.
In their unceasing efforts to accommodate the prejudices of unionism Sinn Fein have given reassurances that they don’t want anything controversial on the site. Martin McGuinness said that hw was “not arguing for any kind of shrine and the First Minister”; and that the proposed centre would “concentrate on how we resolve conflict.” In this Sinn Fein is effectively colluding in the historical revisionism that seeks to wipe out any memory of the republican struggle, or retrospectively transforms it from a struggle to end partition to one for the current settlement. The row over the Maze site is is part of the pattern that has been quickly established in the new Assembly of unionists stamping down on even the mildest acknowledgment of to nationalist grievance or gesture equality, and of Sinn Fein accommodating them.
The other aspect of the stadium controversy that has been largely overlooked has been the issue of privatisation. The whole stadium project is actually dependent on the transfer of the publically owned site to a private developer. With its noxious mix of sectarian politics and neo-liberal economics the stadium controversy encapsulates perfectly the nature of the new dispensation.