The future of the former Long Kesh prison, scene of decades of resistance by Irish republican prisoners to British rule, descended into farce yesterday amid warnings that a planned peace centre/sport stadium project could collapse.
Architects, who had flown from Britain to brief a committee of the Belfast Assembly, were abandoned in the corridors of Stormont after unionist members led an hour-long walk out.
Committee members turned to infighting over the 38,000-seater multi-sports venue and exposed further rifts in the DUP.
Alliance member Kieran McCarthy said: “It is an own goal. Talk about putting your foot in.
“We are trying to promote Northern Ireland as a place to come and enjoy yourself and we have not the decency to open the door and let people in this morning.”
Architects from HOK Sport, which planned major stadium developments in Britain, grounds, went ahead and released its cutting-edge design to the public after being snubbed by committee members.
They envisaged a three-tier style which can accommodate soccer, rugby and Gaelic games as well as rock concerts.
Members of the DUP led the walkout, with Assembly member Nelson McCausland accusing his colleague Mr Poots of abusing his position as Minister for Culture.
“Until the process is complete this is an absolute waste of time having any sort of presentation,” he said.
Mr Poots will put options to finance minister Peter Robinson soon, including plans for a conflict transformation centre which would retain part of the H-blocks where 10 republican prisoners died on hunger strike in 1981.
Unionist opponents have ex-pressed concern that the site could become a “shrine”.
Sinn Féin Assembly member Paul Butler has said that unionist grandstanding would not derail the development.
“The simply fact is that the multi-use stadium and the conflict transformation zone are two major development initiatives. They are both inter-linked and will deliver enormous economic benefits.
“No amount of grandstanding from individual unionist MLA’s, who are protecting their own self-interests, will derail the Long Kesh/Maze development. Unrealistic notions of a stadium in Belfast are unworkable and it is time that some unionists moved on and worked constructively to deliver this major investment.”
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin has reacted angrily at a decision by the Northern Executive to build a new prison at Magilligan in County Derry.
“Our position is that Magilligan Point, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is the last place on earth we would want to see a prison, said Sinn Féin East Derry Assembly member Francie Brolly.
“We are not convinced by the economic, financial or capacity shortfall arguments put by the [British Direct-Rule Minister for Prisons Paul Goggins] to justify his decision.”