Plans to build a new stadium on the site of the Maze prison proved too controversial. Robbie Meredith explains why

 When the Labour MP and then Northern Ireland minister David Hanson announced plans for a new multi-purpose stadium on the former site of the Maze prison in early 2005, he couldn’t have envisaged that the project would make building Wembley look like putting together a Lego set by comparison.

After all, in most other places in the world, building a medium-sized stadium on an out-of-town brownfield site would be fairly straightforward. Not in Northern ­Ireland, however. At the end of January, the BBC here obtained a paper by the current sports minister Gregory Campbell in which he finally killed off the stadium, saying that a lack of political consensus – and money – was behind his decision.

The financial argument is an odd one. Estimates of the stadium’s capacity veered between a fairly modest 30,000 and 40,000 people, and although the projected cost of the stadium had mushroomed from £85 million to around twice that figure, the Maze project benefited from a number of financial advantages – from government money for stadium construction to the easy availability of land. The former prison sat on a publicly owned 360-acre site a dozen miles from Belfast, so the space restrictions encountered by many English clubs hoping to build new grounds did not apply.

Instead, old-fashioned political chauvinism reared its head. The stadium was to be the centrepiece of a massive retail, ­housing and leisure development, but one of the prison’s infamous “H blocks” was to be maintained as an “International Centre for Conflict Transformation”, or “terrorist shrine”, depending on your political ­persuasion. Yet this didn’t bother local sports authorities. The Irish Football Association, Ulster Rugby and the Gaelic ­Athletic Association – not radical bodies by any means – agreed to stage a number of fixtures at the stadium and, unexpectedly, a number of unionist politicians in the area also came out in favour of the project, reasoning that it would create thousands of much-needed construction jobs for their constituents.

The minister’s two chief arguments against the stadium may be clouded in doubt, therefore, but it’s evident that the majority of Northern Ireland supporters weren’t in favour of the Maze. Windsor Park may be comparatively miniscule, with a capacity of little more than 12,000, and in need of major remedial work to secure its immediate future as an international venue, but it’s only a short walk from the centre of Belfast. It’s possible to have a sociable drink close to the ground half an hour before kick-off, and be back in a warm bar just a few minutes after the final whistle. Many fans weren’t keen to swap that cosy matchday experience for a trip to a soulless self-contained site.

Additionally, the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs also expressed concerns over the long-term viability of the Maze stadium. While ­Windsor Park usually sells out for international matches this hasn’t always been the case, and supporters feel that a smaller stadium – holding perhaps 20,000 – would be easier to fill and cost the taxpayer less.

Yet, much as they value it, most supporters acknowledge that Windsor Park isn’t viable either. While ominous mutterings that the national team may soon have to play “home” games in Liverpool are probably wide of the mark – not least because Campbell has released money to upgrade the ground – Windsor would look more at home in League One than hosting World Cup qualifying matches.

Some supporters from the west and south of the country would not have been averse to the Maze as it would have cut their journey times, but most fans favour a new ground close to ­Belfast city centre. Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, albeit on a reduced scale, is often cited. There are a number of possibilities, but finance, planning, traffic and environmental considerations are anything but straightforward.

As many posters on the influential fan site Our Wee Country have commented, the real fight starts now. The British government were prepared to invest a lot of money in the symbolic value of regenerating the Maze, but with so much cash now tied up in the Olympic site they’re unlikely to be generous to any other proposals.

Ironically, the Maze was mooted as a possible venue for some Olympic football matches in 2012. The fear has to be that when Britain next bids for the Games, sometime around the end of the 21st century, we’ll still be waiting for a new stadium.

From WSC 265 March 2009

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