“We just don’t get an answer,” says Aviation Society Chairman as he petitions Stormont to get their Open Day

As lockdown restrictions in Northern Ireland begin to ease, and things are finally beginning to look like normal again, another typical issue is back for the Ulster Aviation Society; their yearly struggle to get their Open Day back, with 2021 marking their eighth year in limbo waiting for governmental approval.

The roadblock for the society isn’t the content of the Open Day, or how they run themselves, but is instead their location; that being the site of the former Maze Prison, also known as Long Kesh, on the outskirts of Lisburn.

These two hangars house the Aviation Society’s vast collection of planes, helicopters, books, and other various types of memorabilia.

The history of this site, having been the home to many paramilitary prisoners during the Trouble’s, has caused a fair bit of disagreement on what it’s legacy should be. The notoriety of the prison isn’t even contained to the UK and Ireland, with its name being recently brought up through several global news publications in comparison to hunger strikers and political prisoners in modern Russia.

Though much of the original prison was knocked down several years ago, disagreements between Sinn Fein and the DUP as to what to do with the remaining buildings has led to a halt in any site development. Sinn Fein would like to create a museum, with public tours of the remaining infrastructure, while the DUP oppose this, believing it would become a memorial for Republican paramilitary violence.

These disagreements eventually caused then-First Minister Peter Robinson to block further development, back in 2013. This was met by Sinn Fein then blocking any future events on the site, which included the annual Ulster Aviation Society (UAS) Open Day.

Raymond Burrows, the Chair of the society, has been trying to get the two parties to come to an agreement ever since, trying to make his message that an organisation he calls a “non-political, educational charity” has been “held to ransom in a continued power spat”.

Mr Burrows, who took over as the Society’s Chair back in 2012, said that the Open Day is very important to the members of the organisation, who have worked hard for years to make the location into what it is today, stating that: “on a Saturday before lockdown we could have had 55 members out here doing stuff, and it became like a light engineering company”.

Ray Burrows, pictured here with an English Electric Canberra jet-powered bomber, which he helped disassemble and transport from England to Northern Ireland.

On the getting past the stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the Chairman said: “Our last Open Day was 2013. We have applied every year for it since, and we have never been told yes. We have also never been told no. We just don’t get an answer. That’s how it works if the Special Advisors for the First and Deputy First Minister can’t agree, we just hear nothing.”

One of the DUP’s Lagan Valley MLA’s, Paul Givan, said that how the UAS are effectively being ignored is “disappointing”. He further said: “I wasn’t aware of that. To me, any government department should be able to give a response to an organisation that’s corresponding with it, even if it is to say no.”

Paul Givan believes that the Aviation Society’s workings should not be a part of the wider conversation surrounding the Maze Prison site.

The former Minister for Communities, on the blocking of the Open Day itself said: “I see no justification for why the Aviation Society shouldn’t be able to open to the public. It shouldn’t be caught up in any other considerations associated with the site. That’s grossly unfair for those who are involved and aren’t dealing with politics or anything like that.”

When discussing what would need to change for the Open Day to get back up and running, Mr Givan said: “We know the reason why this is happening, Sinn Fein are refusing to allow it. What happens with the rest of the area is a matter for future agreement, but the Aviation Society shouldn’t be used as a pawn in that conversation that needs to take place.”

However, according to Paul Butler, a former Sinn Fein MLA for Lagan Valley and also an ex-prisoner of the Maze prison, this assessment “doesn’t show the full picture.” Mr Butler, who spent 15 years imprisoned for the murder of a Royal Ulster Constabulary Officer, said: “It is true that Sinn Fein blocked anyone getting into the Aviation Society, but that was after Peter Robinson scuppered the original proposal. The society just got caught in the crossfire.”

With regards to what he would like to see done with the site now, the former MLA said he would like to see a “Peace and Reconcilliation Centre” in what remains of the prison, as well as going back to one of the original plans to have “a national stadium where GAA, soccer and rugby could all be played”.

Paul Butler (Left) walking with fellow former prisoner Raymond McCartney through the Maze Prison during the demolition of most of the site in 2006.

To see change and for the Aviation Society to get there Open Day, Mr Butler says the talks would need to get back to some of those original proposals, adding that for the site to be fully fair “it shouldn’t be ran by any political party, including Sinn Fein. It should be ran by its own independent body.”

Despite their being quite strong held opinions on the future of the site, any progress is either slow or stopped, so the potential of an Open Day for the Ulster Aviation Society may not come around soon, but that won’t stop the group’s members from keeping on asking and growing their collection for when people can see it again.