First Minister Peter Robinson & deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness show their support for the NI competitors

First Minister Peter Robinson & deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness show their support for the NI competitors: Photo © Michael Fisher

Some medals have already been awarded and some of the competitors from the novice section of the ice hockey have already gone home. But this was the day set aside for the official opening ceremony of the 2013 World Police and Fire Games. It was a fantastic occasion at the King’s Hall complex in Belfast, with over 10,000 people (mainly competitors and their friends and family) crowding into a specially constructed arena dominated by a large stage.

Here come the Mounties (RCMP) !!

Here come the Mounties (RCMP) !! Photo © Michael Fisher

The evening ended with the lighting of the games torch, the raising of the WPFG flag and a performance by Brian Kennedy and other stars.

WPFG opening ceremony: Photo  © Michael Fisher

WPFG opening ceremony: Photo © Michael Fisher

Today I saw the way the Waterfront Hall had been turned into a welcome centre for all the athletes and their supporters. Met some of the volunteers there who were very helpful. When I returned to my car at St George’s Market found two competitors, both from the USA, wondering how to get out to the Mary Peters track to take a look around (one of them will be competing there, the other is taking part in the golf competition).

PSNI Chief Constable (and Crystal Palace fan) Matt Baggott

PSNI Chief Constable (and Crystal Palace fan) Matt Baggott Photo © Michael Fisher

I was wearing my official identification so I immediately offered to bring them to the track and gave them a guided tour of South Belfast (University Road and Malone Road, including the turnoff for Newforge) along the way. When we arrived, both were impressed with the track and I pointed out the new stand, which I was seeing for the first time. Looks well, as do the QUB facilities at The Dub beside the House of Sport.

Team Ireland

Members of Team Ireland Photo © Michael Fisher

Note: for those who think I have mixed up this photo with the Ivory Coast (who are not represented at the games) take a look at where the hook is on the green section for attaching the tricolour to a flagpole. I insisted on carrying the national flag this way once in Belgium, to the consternation of some of my colleagues! The rest of the Garda/fire/prison service team preferred to carry the Irish flag in what might seem the ‘normal’ way, i.e. green, white and orange. Anyone who wishes to clarify the correct protocol should let me know.

Among the visitors to the ceremony was the President of the Ulster Council of the GAA, Martin McAviney from Ballybay. He will be heading for Croke Park on Saturday to join his fellow county-man Paraic Duffy (Castleblayney and Scotstown),  Ard Stiúrthoir Cumann Lúthchleas Gael. No doubt both of  them will find it difficult to remain entirely neutral when the Farney army meet Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-final! Gaelic football is one of the sports at WPFG 2013.

Plenty of colour at the opening ceremony WPFG 2013

Plenty of colour at the opening ceremony WPFG 2013 Photo © Michael Fisher

Northern Ireland Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín watches the pageant

Northern Ireland Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín watches the pageant: Photo © Michael Fisher


Riding for the Disabled group in shadow of former Maze prison

Riding for the Disabled group in shadow of former Maze prison

It was an a-mazing second day at the Balmoral Show. Standing in the shadow of two watchtowers, a security wall and other reminders of the former high-security jail, I met  a group from the Riding for the Disabled Association (whose President is the Princess Royal, sister of Prince Edward, who opened the show yesterday). They came from clubs in Newtownards, Banbridge and included some members of the RDA Ireland from Monaghan.

I was at the Maze only once during its previous existence as a high-security prison. Making a radio programme for BBC Radio Birmingham in the mid-1970s, I spent a night with a British Army regiment known as the Birmingham Gunners (39 Medium Regiment Royal Artillery) in the military base on one part of the site.

I remember it was around the time of St Patrick’s Day and I eventually found a suitable spot to drown the shamrock. Next day I was taken in a Land Rover on one of their perimeter security patrols and was also shown into one of the watchtowers. From there I could see a group of prisoners exercising in one of the H-blocks. One of them was running around the large cage and when he spotted a face in the observation post, he made a two-fingered gesture and shouted towards his “audience”.

The Gunners did four “emergency” tours of duty in the North in the 1970s, the first to Fort George in Derry in 1973, which, like the Maze, is now earmarked for a regeneration project. At the time of their deployment at the Maze, the squaddies were also in Craigavon and some were stationed at the border checkpoint at Aughnacloy. Some years previously in 1969 while on exercise in Libya, the Regiment found itself caught up in the military coup of the then Captain Muammar Gadaffi against the government of King Idris.

Main Arena Balmoral Show 2013 DayTwo

Main Arena Balmoral Show 2013 Day Two

Now after some 37 years I was back at the Maze, but in a very different context. With thousands of cars parked on hard standing all paths from the car park led to the main entrance of the 145th annual Royal Ulster Agricultural Society show. This event transferred from the King’s Hall complex at Balmoral in Belfast is helping to bring a promising future to the site of the former jail.

The transformation is being carried out by the Maze Long Kesh Development Corporation. Programme Director Kyle Alexander confirmed to reporters this evening that funding for the development of a Peace-building and Conflict Resolution Centre is expected to be in place by the end of this year. Although the Corporation wants to emphasise that the 347 acres should be a shared site, some unionist politicians and loyalists have protested that the preserved hospital and one H-block from the prison should not be allowed to become a “shrine” for the republican hunger strikers who died there.

RUAS President John Bamber at Balmoral Show entrance

RUAS President John Bamber at Balmoral Show entrance

Meanwhile the show will continue for a third day, with initial traffic problems apparently sorted, although the delays in arriving now seem to have been transferred to departure from the site. There are plans to build a slip road to the nearby M1 motorway in 2015, which would ease congestion along the narrow access roads around the complex. RUAS President John Bamber was pleased with the opening day of the show and said he hoped the traffic management plan put into place with the PSNI and Roads Service would help to ease congestion, especially for those travelling from West of the Bann.


Balmoral Show Launch

Irish Moiled Breed back at Balmoral Show

Getting ready for Balmoral Show 2013. The launch was at the King’s Hall complex, where it has been held since 1896. But this year the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society’s premier event is moving to a new 65 acre complex at the former high security Maze prison site near Lisburn. The space is more than double the size of the Balmoral showgrounds in South Belfast. The move which Society members approved last June is quite historic and it’s going to be a phenomenal success, according to the RUAS President, John Bamber.

RUAS President John Bamber

RUAS President John Bamber

It’s Ireland’s largest agri-food show and attracts exhibitors and visitors from throughout the island. The organisers are hoping to surpass the 70,000 crowd they had last year. The new showgrounds is called Balmoral Park and will have most of the usual attractions as well as a funfair for the first time.  They say it will be bigger and better than previous shows.

Balmoral Park, designed  by the London architects Studio Egret West, with its well laid out walkways and paths (many bearing street names with a respectful nod to the past), green spaces and landscaped areas, allows a greater space for trade exhibitors, larger facilities and warm up/practice areas for competitors. The arena increases in size by 25%. Adjacent to this is an area of tiered seating and landscaped banks allowing spectators to view show jumping, pony club games, the inter hunt chase as well as the headline attraction – The Kangaroo Kid.  The cattle lawn, sheep, horse and pig & goat rings also boast larger exhibiting areas.

Balmoral Park, The Maze

Balmoral Park, The Maze

The Show (map here) can now accommodate further livestock, making room for a number of other breeds including cattle with European Angus, Beef Shorthorns, Dexters and Irish Moiled, horses with Coloured Horses and Connemara Working Hunter and sheep with the addition of Swaledale and Lanark Type Blackface.

Greater acreage has led to a greater number, size and range of exhibits, as RUAS Chief Executive, Colin McDonald explained, “We are very excited about the new Showgrounds and the amazing opportunities it presents to expand and enhance the Show.  The move has allowed us not only to safeguard the future of this event and the Society but also to build upon our century long track record of showcasing food and farming excellence.” There will now be room to bring back plant machinery exhibits. Two of the most popular attractions – the Garden Village and the NI Food Pavilion have both expanded.

Food, a key component of the Balmoral Show, will be available in abundance throughout the Showgrounds and in the NI Food Pavilion which will offer more local variety than ever before.  The Garden village will be the location of the Womens’ Institute tea rooms, where you can enjoy a relaxing break while enjoying their new home industries section.  The new feature show garden will be a combination of contemporary gardens, an elegant classical garden, a Japanese garden and an open countryside.

Plenty of Parking at Maze Showgrounds

Plenty of Parking at Maze Showgrounds

There will be four official car parks around the Showgrounds, in addition to dedicated exhibitor car parks and disabled facilities. Provision has been made for up to 10,000 cars. Public transport will be available and more details will be released later by Translink. Balmoral Show will take place at Balmoral Park at the Maze near Lisburn on Wednesday 15th to Friday 17th May 2013. The Show runs from 9.30am to 8.30pm on the first two days and until 8pm on the final day.  Further details can be found here.

The question  now is what will happen to the King’s Hall complex, where some of the older pavilions used by the RUAS and the grandstand have been demolished. There was planning permission a few years ago for around 140 houses on a section of the site. The Hall itself which was opened in 1934 is a grade B1 listed building. It remains the largest exhibition area in Northern Ireland. It was also a famous boxing venue. Rinty Monaghan boxed several times in the hall. A blue plaque was unveiled in his memory at the hall in 2007. In 1985 the Clones Cyclone Barry McGuigan made his first title defence against Bernard Taylor at the Hall, having fought there on six previous occasions.

King's Hall, Belfast

King’s Hall, Belfast