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Debunked: No, the British army is not setting up a 'military camp' at Long Kesh prison

A post on Facebook claims that the British army are to set up a ‘military camp’ at the site of the former Maze Prison.

Former H Block Maze prison at Long Kesh near Lisburn, Northern Ireland.
Former H Block Maze prison at Long Kesh near Lisburn, Northern Ireland.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Images

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IN RECENT WEEKS, a Facebook post has made a specific claim regarding the future use of the historic Maze Prison site outside of Belfast during Covid-19. 

According to the post, Radio Ulster has reported that British military personnel are to return to the site of the Maze Prison – also known as Long Kesh – to establish a new military camp there. 

“Supporters of Anti-Imperialist Action have been in touch with concerning news, stating that Radio Ulster has been reporting that the British Military is to return to the site of Long Kesh Prison and establish a new military camp there,” the post states. 

It continues: “Britain has no right to be in Ireland, its occupation of our country is illegal and its military and terror gangs are not wanted.

“We cannot allow the Coronavirus to be used to normalise the British Military in Ireland. All Republicans must continue to combat and resist imperialism and the occupation,” it said. 

‘Military Assistance’ 

The post does not provide any details to substantiate this claim nor does it specify what is meant by “military camp”. 

The claim appears to have its origin in a political row which broke out earlier this month after Stormont’s Health Minister Robin Swann asked for military assistance to distribute medical equipment and to plan for the possibility of a hospital to treat Covid-19 patients at the former prison site. 

“I said at the start of this pandemic that I would turn down no reasonable offer or source of support. I’ve been clear that if I thought the UK military could be of assistance then I would not shy away from requesting it,” said Swann. 

Swann also said he had approved two decisions to activate a ‘Military Aid to Civil Authorities’ process in Northern Ireland. 

In response to Swann, Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, said her party would “not rule out any measure necessary to save lives, protect the public and tackle the spread of coronavirus” but said the plan had not been approved by the Executive.

Swann’s move to seek military assistance was approved by the SDLP and the Alliance Party. 

In Northern Ireland, there have been 3,452 cases of coronavirus and 338 people have died.  

‘Balmoral Show’

The Maze Prison site holds particular importance for Republicans, most notably for the 1981 hunger strike which took place there. 

The prison was closed in 2000. Since 2013, the site has hosted the annual agri-food Balmoral Show, which has been cancelled for this year. 

In March, Sinn Féin MP for South Down Chris Hazzard suggested using the site as a testing facility for Covid-19, considering the Balmoral Show was unlikely to go ahead at that point. 

Hazzard told TheJournal.ie that this site could help alleviate pressure on Northern Ireland’s health service during the pandemic. 

“Given its central location and its infrastructure I thought it could be a good place [for a testing facility],” said Hazzard. 

According to the South Down MP, health officials in Northern Ireland carried out a feasibility study on the Maze Prison site but decided in favour of alternative testing facility sites. 

Military Camp?

So, will the British Army set up a “military camp” at the former Maze Prison site? 

TheJournal.ie asked both the British military and the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to clarify exactly what plans were in place for the Maze Prison site; if army personnel will be on-site; if military training will take place; and what role the British Army will play. 

A spokesperson for the Department said it is continuing to assess the potential of the Eikon Centre at Balmoral Park, Maze, along with other sites, as a possibility for providing an on-site hospital facility to further increase bed capacity later this year.

This, they added, was in preparation for any further wave of Covid-19, should it occur.

The British Army, meanwhile, told TheJournal.ie it “remains ready to provide support or assistance to the civil authorities [in Northern Ireland] as is required”.  

“Service personnel based in Northern Ireland are available to assist in a variety of tasks at short notice,” a spokesperson said. 

These tasks would be coordinated by the 38th Brigade in Lisburn, which is near the Maze Prison site. 

Additionally, they said, there are a number of military planners and advisors able to support government Departments and Northern Ireland civil contingency forums, if required.

Currently there are no plans for the British military to return to the Maze site and build a ‘military camp’.

Radio Ulster did not return a request for comment by the time of publishing. 

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***

There is a lot of false news and scaremongering being spread in Ireland at the moment about coronavirus. Here are some practical ways for you to assess whether the messages that you’re seeing – especially on WhatsApp – are true or not. 

STOP, THINK AND CHECK 

Look at where it’s coming from. Is it someone you know? Do they have a source for the information (e.g. the HSE website) or are they just saying that the information comes from someone they know? A lot of the false news being spread right now is from people claiming that messages from ‘a friend’ of theirs. Have a look yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is being reported elsewhere. 

Secondly, get the whole story, not just a headline. A lot of these messages have got vague information (“all the doctors at this hospital are panicking”) and don’t mention specific details. This is often – but not always a sign – that it may not be accurate. 

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. A lot of these false messages are designed to make people feel panicked. They’re deliberately manipulating your feelings to make you more likely to share it. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it really is true.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie. 

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