BALMORAL PARK

Closing stages of Balmoral Show 2013

Closing stages of Balmoral Show 2013

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.

Valerie Orr, Ballygowan, with Irish Moiled breed

Valerie Orr, Ballygowan, with Irish Moiled breed

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.

Charolais on parade

Charolais on parade

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.

Adelaide Station (South Belfast)

Adelaide Station (South Belfast)

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.

Roll up, Roll up for the Racing Pigs!

Roll up, Roll up for the Racing Pigs!

BALMORAL SHOW AT MAZE

Army No.1 Band at Balmoral Park

Army No.1 Band at Balmoral Park

The Maze was once the site of Northern Ireland’s high security jail, spread out over 360 acres. Today saw a new chapter in its history as thousands made their way to Balmoral Park, the new venue for the annual Royal Ulster Agricultural Society show. Helping to entertain the crowds in the main arena was the Army No.1 Band from Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin, under the direction on this occasion of Captain Fergal Carroll.

Who would have thought that 13 years after the closure of the prison in 2000 and the release under the Good Friday agreement of the remaining loyalist and republican paramilitaries who had served sentences, that an Irish Army presence would be welcomed there. In addition, I noticed the tricolour flying alongside the Union flag and the flag of Canada in the same arena, where the showjumping was held.

Capt. Geoff Curran & Army No.1 Band

Capt. Geoff Curran & Army No.1 Band

As the band was performing for the second time, the riders were coming out to inspect the course for their competition. Among them was Captain Geoff Curran from the Army Equitation School at McKee Barracks in Dublin, who met Queen Elizabeth during her visit to the National Stud in County Kildare in May 2011.

In the past, the cages on this site were the H-blocks, housing prisoners. Now the only cages and huts are those holding animals and livestock. There is just the hospital wing and part of the H-blocks remaining.

Looking towards remains of prison site with wall and watchtowers © Michael Fisher

Looking towards remains of prison site with wall and watchtowers © Michael Fisher

It has taken many months of planning to get the Balmoral Show to its new site at The Maze. I passed by recently on the M1 motorway and saw in the near distance the extensive tented village and the hard standing for the car park area. Today I was able to enjoy a visit to the complex. Translink had put on special transport arrangements for public transport, including a shuttle bus to and from Balmoral Park from Lisburn station.

Translink shuttle bus service from Lisburn

Translink shuttle bus service from Lisburn

The journey to the show via Hillsborough and Culcavy took half an hour but the return at 6:30pm took half the time. My sister-in-law travelling from Monaghan and others heading from West of the Bann trying to reach the show from the M1 motorway ran into great difficulty. She took four hours, having left at 9am. The former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Ellliott MLA had a similar story. He left Fermanagh at 8:30am along with two children in the car and did not reach the showgrounds until 1:30pm! His successor Mike Nesbitt though had no such problems and told me he had taken less than half an hour to reach Balmoral Park.

Ulster Unionist Leader Mike Nesbitt MLA

Ulster Unionist Leader Mike Nesbitt MLA

 For more background on the move to the Maze site and the programme of events see my post in March.