Northern Ireland

Pioneering spirit marks Balmoral Show Maze move

The Maze
Image caption The new location for the Balmoral Show at the former Maze prison site

It may be a short hop from the King's Hall in Belfast to the former Maze prison site.

But moving the Balmoral Show to a place steeped in controversy represents a huge leap of faith for the conservative farming membership of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society.

It is less than a year since the society decided to make the move.

But despite some members' deep reservations and a huge logistical challenge, the show grounds are ready.

From farms across Northern Ireland they will come in their thousands to the Maze this week.

And they know what to expect.

The watch towers and walls of one of Europe's most notorious prisons cast a shadow over the pristine new arena and marquees.

But despite these ugly reminders of Northern Ireland's troubled past, the farming society is determined to make this place its new and permanent home.

Like early Ulster-Scots farmers, the move to the Maze seems to have stirred the pioneering spirit.

For many farmers, this is a step into a previously hostile place, but one which is being made with determination to make things work despite deep reservations.

The process of the society coming here has involved years of soul searching followed by a few short months of frenetic activity.

The crunch came at a special meeting last June when an overwhelming number of members voted for the building of the new show grounds at the Maze.

The society's president, John Bamber, summed up the mood of many members saying he carried many emotions into that meeting.

Many members who had previously voiced vehement opposition were finally won round to the idea.

But the process to build a consensus in favour of building a new Balmoral park at the Maze actually took a long time. In fact, by the time the crunch vote was taken there had been almost 15 years of discussion.

There were compelling financial reasons too. Running the King's Hall site proved expensive and operating losses had been mounting.

The society's net outgoings jumped to more than £300,000 last year and losses were eating into the assets built up by previous generations.

In the end, most of the society's membership recognised that a move away from the show grounds at Balmoral was inevitable and the prospect of a large site near Sprucefield looked too good to miss.

In politics and farming, timing is everything.

And when political agreement was finally forthcoming at Stormont, the farming society had its Maze development plan ready.

But to build new show grounds from scratch in under a year, surely wasn't possible?

Image caption The cream of the show? Getting ready for Balmoral at the Maze

At the Maze, the results are ready for all to see.

This place can never be the leafy south Belfast site stretching back from the iconic King's Hall but it will be interesting to see the reaction to the new Balmoral park from the public and exhibitors this week.

True, it is not yet the finished article but the farming society plans to plough a lot more effort and money into the place as the years go by.

Just how much the public purse has helped sweeten the move to the Maze is not yet clear, but no doubt the farming society has extracted a good deal from government.

And so a new era is about to unfold and the 145th Balmoral show opens its doors in a new place.

For some attending the show this week, the visual reminders of a violent past may be disturbing, but the agricultural society is clear that it sees here the opportunity to leave a real legacy for future generations.

This week will tell whether that sense of optimism is well placed.

In Pictures: Balmoral Show 2013