Thousands have again poured through the gates on the third and final day of the Balmoral Show at its new location on the site of what was once the high-security Maze prison near Lisburn. It used to house prisoners from republican and loyalist paramilitary groups, many of them serving life sentences for murder. Following a provision in the Good Friday agreement in 1998, the prisoners were released and the jail was closed in 2000 when the last four prisoners were freed. Demolition of the H-Blocks began on 30th October 2006 but after some controversy, part of the prison including the hospital block and one H-block were kept.
Unionists are now protesting against any plans to preserve these structures, which republicans feel are important because of their role during the 1981 hunger strike, in which ten inmates died. By chance, I am writing this while watching an RTÉ News report about the force-feeding by US authorities of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay detention camp at an American naval base in Cuba.
The farming community voted with their feet and gave their backing to the decision made last year by the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society to move from their long-standing home at the King’s Hall, Balmoral, in South Belfast and to settle down instead at a 65 acre site at the Maze. Several huge marquees helped to make the complex into a tented village. One of them housed all the cattle. Among the prizewinners in the Irish Moiled category which made a return to the show this year after a gap of 70 years was Valerie Orr from Trainview Farm in Ballygowan. Valerie featured at the launch of the show in March.
The grand parade in the main arena this afternoon with representatives of all the classes (except dairy cattle, which had to be milked!) was very impressive, with all the prize winners showing off their rosettes and cups.
There had been many problems with traffic arriving at the show on Wednesday. Although things had improved considerably by the final day, some motorists still reported difficulties on the approach roads, caused in one case by a filter traffic light for a right hand lane allowing only six cars through at a time. Although the police were nearby, they remained in a car apparently and did not attempt to override the lights in order to improve the traffic flow. My experience was that on the second day, I found no problem arriving by car in the late afternoon, but it took over twenty minutes to get out of the car park at 7pm. A slip road to the M1 motorway which runs alongside the perimeter of the site is urgently needed.
So for the other two days I let the train (and bus) take the strain. I travelled by train from Adelaide station past Balmoral and the King’s Hall to Lisburn where there was a shuttle bus to the Maze. Translink staff told me between 40 and 48 single and double-deck buses were used for the service. Leaving the show site at 5:10pm at peak time, I was back at Balmoral (station) in one hour, with hardly any delay at Lisburn station, although a signalling failure had caused delays on the line. So take a bow, Translink staff, for providing excellent public service and showing good co-operation between bus and train divisions. Perhaps next time something can be done to designate a route for buses only and to give them their own entry/exit point, in order to improve journey times.