Northern Ireland news

Sinn Féin allowed into Maze Prison site after Michelle O'Neill raised concerns about 'deterioration'

Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill had "raised concerns about signs of deterioration at the hospital site" at the former Maze prison
Brendan Hughes

STORMONT chiefs granted Sinn Féin access to the Maze site after Michelle O'Neill raised concerns about a "deterioration" of the former prison's hospital wing.

It emerged in March that civil servants allowed Sinn Féin access last summer despite an ongoing six-year row with the DUP blocking its use.

At the time Stormont officials refused to explain the decision, but internal correspondence obtained by The Irish News sheds some light on the move.

The Maze/Long Kesh (MLK) was the site of the IRA hunger strikes and held some of the north's most notorious paramilitaries before its closure in 2000.

Plans for a £300 million redevelopment, including a peace centre, were halted in 2013 by then DUP leader and first minister Peter Robinson after unionist critics argued it would become a shrine to terrorism.

In response Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, then deputy first minister, said no further development would take place until the issue was resolved.

Since then, most requests to use or visit the site have not been approved because of the continuing spat.

Stormont officials have mostly maintained this block on requests since the executive's collapse in 2017.

Asked why Sinn Féin was granted access, the Executive Office in March would only say, "There has been no change to the Maze/Long Kesh Site event approval process."

Internal correspondence on the decision has since been disclosed through a Freedom of Information request.

In an email last June, a Stormont official briefed colleagues about queries from Sinn Féin deputy leader Ms O'Neill to Civil Service chief David Sterling about the Maze site's hospital wing where the hunger strikers died in 1981.

"Michelle O'Neill raised concerns about signs of deterioration at the hospital site at MLK. David undertook to look into this and come back to her on the issue," the official wrote.

"Michelle was also keen to visit the hospital site herself and we undertook to make arrangements for this."

A briefing note for Mr Sterling recommended that he agree to arranging a site visit.

Since 2017, only three of the 20 requests to use or access the site have been approved – Sinn Féin and the Ulster Aviation Society last summer, and the SDLP in March this year.

Sinn Féin has said its reps visited with an architect "to ensure the site and its listed buildings were being maintained".

UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt had said it was "quite extraordinary" that Sinn Féin were "among the chosen few" and questioned whether Stormont officials consulted the DUP.

"Either they did not ask the DUP – which would be to overturn the previous policy – or they did ask and the DUP said yes. Either would be truly remarkable," he said.

The DUP at the time did not respond to requests for a comment.

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