The North's Culture Minister has given the clearest indication yet that proposals for a multi-sports stadium at the Maze prison site may be scrapped.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Minister Gregory Campbell today confirmed he had finalised long-awaited recommendations on the project and was ready to brief fellow ministers.
But significantly the minister said in the Assembly today that he had asked the representatives of soccer, rugby and gaelic games to identify their preferred “plan B”, if proposals for a joint stadium were ditched.
The top-security Maze prison and its H-block cells were synonymous with the Troubles and it was originally hoped that a positive message for the future could be sent out by building a stadium at the site to be shared by sports from the nationalist and unionist traditions.
But unionists have been split on the plan, raising various concerns over the cost of the scheme and claims that a museum holding sections of the prison would become a republican shrine.
During ministerial questions in the Assembly today Mr Campbell was asked by party colleague Jim Shannon if the three sports bodies, who had originally backed the stadium plan, had been made aware of the alternatives to a joint venue at the Maze.
Mr Campbell said: “My discussions with the three sports in terms of the Maze project were very straightforward.
“I said to each of them that I knew what their previous position was, and I then alluded to them, ’Is that still your same position?’.
“And then asked them, ’If we were talking then, for whatever reason, hypothetically, if your previous position is not going to be the final outcome, what would your preferred solution be?’
“Now as a result of those discussions and other discussions I have had, I am now in the position where I am able to furnish my Executive colleagues with a paper which should end the uncertainty.
“And then begin what I believe would be a fairly significant and substantial progress towards the establishment of ensuring that the needs of all those sports are met.
“Whether they are met in one way or another way – but they need to be met.”
His comments follow unconfirmed speculation that the minister will opt to ditch the stadium plan and will instead propose investing money in refurbishing existing stadia.
Republicans have noted that sections of the Maze prison have already been listed for protection, including one of its iconic H-blocks and the prison hospital where republican hunger strikers including Bobby Sands died in 1981.
Today Sinn Féin MLA for Lagan Valley, Paul Butler, said his party would block any plans to build a stadium away from the Maze/Long Kesh site.
“The reality is there will not be a stadium built with Executive approval unless it is built at the Maze-Long Kesh site,” said Mr Butler.
“The DUP and Gregory Campbell cannot dictate where the stadium will be located and Sinn Féin’s ministers on the Executive will ensure they do not dictate the location.”
Sinn Féin are currently blocking meetings of the Executive in protest at what the party claims is the failure of the DUP to agree a deal on outstanding issues including the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Assembly.
A further issue dividing the parties is the future of the Long Kesh/Maze prison site and Mr Campbell called on Sinn Féin to agree to an Executive meeting planed for this Thursday to allow him to unveil his plans.
The minister has in the past reacted to speculation around his proposals by insisting he wants to discuss them with fellow ministers before making them public.