A CONTROVERSIAL peace centre at the site of a former prison for paramilitaries in Northern Ireland has been given the green light by planners.
Stormont's Planning Minister Alex Attwood has granted permission for the Peace Building and Conflict Resolution Centre at the Maze near Lisburn.
Ten republican prisoners died on hunger strike at the prison in the early 1980s.
Proposals for the facility have been the source of major political discord in the region, with many unionists unhappy that it could become a "shrine to terrorism".
Former prison buildings, including the hospital block where the hunger strikers died, are being retained on the 350-acre site, although they will not form part of the peace centre.
Mr Attwood said: "I have today granted permission for the proposed centre. There is learning to be taken from the conflict here. The centre can contribute to sharing this learning and perhaps to help inform the resolution of conflict in other places."
The Maze housed republican and loyalist paramilitaries for almost thirty years during the Troubles.
It closed in 2000 after prisoners were released en masse under the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998.
Ever since there has been fierce debate over what the state-owned site should be turned into.
Plans for a multi-sports stadium for soccer, gaelic football and rugby hit the buffers in the face of unionist opposition.
The Royal Ulster Agricultural Society (RUAS) has agreed to relocate to the site, where it will host its annual show.
The peace centre is being built with an £18 million European Union grant.
The approval of planning permission for the facility is set to spark fresh political debate, with unionists and republican politicians already clashing over how the story of the Troubles, in particular the hunger strikes, should be told.
The building was designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, in conjunction with McAdam Design.
"I believe that good planning needs good design," said Mr Attwood.
"That is certainly the case in the design of the Centre created by Daniel Libeskind, a world leader in architecture and a friend of Northern Ireland."
A further application for minor works to the listed and retained prison buildings on the site has also been granted planning permission by the minister.
Mr Attwood hailed planners for processing the planning applications in less than six months.
"This is another example of the benefit of pro-active pre-application discussion and community consultation in dealing with major planning applications of regional significance, such as this," he said.
"This will play a significant part in meeting a target of the EU funding programme and I am determined to continue making major planning decisions speedily and accurately and making a planning system more fit to achieve its purpose."
The conserved buildings at the Maze, which is also called Long Kesh, include the H6 prison block, the prison hospital, the emergency control building and chapel.
The site was originally farmland and in the Second World War was used as an airfield.
The Ulster Aviation Society's collection of aircraft is currently housed in the remaining wartime hangars.
The hangars are due to be refurbished as part of the wider development plans for the site.
The chair of the Maze Long Kesh Development Corporation, Terence Brannigan, welcomed the green light for the peace centre, which will be officially called the Peace-building and Conflict Resolution Centre (PbCRC).
He said the wider development of the site would create 5,000 jobs and be a catalyst for change.
"This announcement will afford us the opportunity to build a PbCRC which will, in time, enhance our regional and international reputation, share our expertise in peace-building and conflict resolution, and provide a focus to enable us to take the lead in European and worldwide peace-building networks," he said.
"It also means that we can move towards the construction phase of the project by the end of this year, thereby creating local employment opportunities, at a time when our construction industry really needs support."
He added: "The award of £18 million funding from the EU is a significant and tangible demonstration of their support for our peace process. Without this support this centre would not have been possible."
Pat Colgan, chief executive of the Special EU Programmes Body, which manages the funding grant through the Peace III Programme, said: "I am pleased to hear that planning permission has been officially granted.
"This project represents one of the largest single capital build investments in peace-building under the current Peace Programme.
"Upon completion it will create an internationally recognised centre of excellence that will enable us to share our unique experiences of peace and reconciliation across the world.
"The centre will act as a legacy for the Peace Programme for many years to come and is a testament to Europe's continued support for the conflict resolution work which is being carried out across the region."
New York-based architect Mr Libeskind said: "It is truly meaningful to build a hope-filled common ground, to tell individual stories and to do so in Maze Long Kesh."
Martin Hare, director of Belfast-based McAdam design, said: "This timely planning approval signals the continued commitment shown by DoE planning and wider statutory authorities to support the regeneration of the whole of the MLK site and to provide a catalyst for significant inward investment into the local economy in terms of jobs and infrastructure.
"With Daniel Libeskind's continued and ongoing involvement in the scheme, I believe PbCRC will deliver the varied and numerous aspirations of all the stakeholders involved in this project."
Stormont's First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness welcomed the planning approval.
Mr Robinson said: "The regeneration of the 350 acres at the Maze site represents one of the biggest development opportunities anywhere in Northern Ireland.
"Already the redevelopment of this site is helping to grow our local economy and stimulate job creation particularly initially in the construction industry. Already there are nine local construction companies and 24 local supply companies engaged with the site.
"The ongoing construction of Balmoral Park for use by the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society has been widely welcomed and the Executive will continue to work with other organisations to ensure a positive future for the site.
"The construction of a new purpose-built Peace-building and Conflict Resolution Centre will help strengthen and consolidate our peace-building expertise and help us share our peace-building experience with others across the world."
Mr McGuinness said: "This is an important stage in delivering a world-class Peace-building and Conflict Resolution Centre at the Maze/Long Kesh site by 2015.
"The Maze/Long Kesh site has the potential for significant job creation and private sector investment, assessed at 5,000 jobs and £300 million investment.
"The Peace-building and Conflict Resolution Centre alone could support 70 additional jobs and generate approximately £1 million per annum from visitor income and employment.
"The new centre will send out a powerful signal to the international community that we are building a brighter, better and shared future together."