Returning from a brief visit to Birmingham yesterday on Saint Patrick’s Day, I flew into Belfast International Airport. I was at the funeral of a former colleague at BBC Radio Birmingham, now Radio WM, Ken Dudeney. I then remembered that 39 years ago in 1976 I had flown into Aldergrove airport as it was then known as a BBC Radio Birmingham reporter on a very different mission. I had been tasked to do a programme about a British Army regiment doing a tour of duty in the North, the Birmingham Gunners. Their correct title was 39 Medium Regiment Royal Artillery. They had been deployed there for four months on December 4th 1975 and served on that occasion until April 6th 1976. The BBC local radio station had been offered the opportunity by the British Army to meet and record interviews with some of the squaddies an their officers. During that tour of duty, H Battery was on duty securing the perimeter of the Maze prison near Lisburn. 132 Battery was on the border at Aughnacloy, manning the checkpoint on the main Dublin to Derry road. A third section 176 Battery covered Lurgan and Criagavon. Thus it was that on St Patrick’s Day in April 1976 I spent the night at the British Army base at HMP Maze. More of this story later.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For more background on the move to the Maze site and the programme of events see my post in March.