As far as brownfield sites go, the 140-hectare site at Maze Long Kesh, 14 kilometres south-west of Belfast in Northern Ireland, was not heavily contaminated and required little more than a standard environmental clean-up. Removing the stains of turmoil and conflict that colour the site is more complicated.

The site – which now presents a major development opportunity and which is seeking foreign investment – happens to also be home to the notorious Maze prison, which housed paramilitary prisoners involved in sectarian struggles known locally as 'The Troubles' from the 1970s until its closure in 2000. This was where Republican hunger strikers starved themselves to death in 1981.

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Mixed opinions

Depending on their politics and loyalties, people look at the now-shuttered prison and see different things. The decision to leave part of it standing, and eventually open it up to visitors, is seen by some as memorialising IRA terrorism; by others the prison is viewed as a visible cautionary tale against violence and discord; and by yet others as a necessary testament to wrongs that occurred against them and their allies.

Squaring these various, passionately held, viewpoints is a tortuous process, but one that Neil McIvor, development director with the Maze Long Kesh Development Corporation, points to as a sign of progress.

“We want to preserve the wider historical and reconciliation significance of the site. We appreciate that the Maze Long Kesh site is sensitive but it is important that we seek to make progress, while respecting all views,” he says.

“The regeneration of the site is unique and we want to retain that opportunity for future generations. It is not only about FDI and jobs, although the employment prospects – 5000 jobs – and investment – £300m [$460m] – are substantial.”

A delicate process

In drawing up the plans for a peace and conflict-resolution centre that will be built on the site – to be designed by famed architect Daniel Libeskind, creator of the Ground Zero memorial in New York City – group discussions were held that brought together victims as well as perpetrators of sectarian violence among other stakeholders.

While the presence of the prison and a 1970s-era internment camp looms largest in the public consciousness, the site has a more diverse history than many people realise. During World War Two, it served for a short time as a headquarters for the US Air Force, was a Royal Air Force base with a squadron of Spitfires and still houses the largest collection of aircraft in Ireland, with 29 historical military and civilian aircraft on display in a hangar which is now a designated scheduled monument. It has also played host to a motor racing circuit in the 1950s.  

There have been other attempts to develop the site in the recent past. A 2006 masterplan called for the construction of a sports stadium, although this idea was later scrapped. The Maze Long Kesh Development Corporation was formed only last year, but the new scheme has gained traction quite quickly. Planning powers have been devolved in Northern Ireland, giving local councils more freedom to approve plans in a timely manner – something that has made a difference.  

The Royal Ulster Agricultural Society is taking 26 hectares to make a centre of excellence for agribusiness and agri-science; it is hoped this will entice companies in the sector to take space on an adjacent 32 hectares to create a business park. Mr McIvor says there is interest already from research and development outfits. The Balmoral Show, a farming and agriculture event, took place at the site in May, providing a boost for its ambitions of becoming a venue for exhibitions, concerts and other events.

Taking shape

A tender is being put out at the end of June to invite proposals for private-sector investment in the project, with final tenders being awarded ideally in the first quarter of 2014. Developers will seek enterprise zone status for the site, allowing the possibility of special incentives to be offered to investors.

Delivery of an enhanced road infrastructure is a priority, as the site is currently only served by a network of small rural roads. Planned link roads will give access onto Northern Ireland's main motorway, making the site, planners say, one of the best connected in Northern Ireland. Design work has already started on this. The roads upgrade will also give a boost to the local neighbourhoods surrounding the site, who stand to benefit additionally from new recreational and community areas that are part of the development plan.

“There are lots of development prospects for the wider area due to the presence of the Maze Long Kesh site that we can help to influence: the ‘1000-acre context’ and the wider impact is part of our vision,” says Mr McIvor.

And vision is everything. The hope is that when people look at Maze Long Kesh in five, 10 or 20 years’ time, they see a symbol of how Northern Ireland moved on, as the site’s marketing slogan ambitiously says, from peace to prosperity.