Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has warned that “the extremes of political unionism” have been boosted after DUP leader Peter Robinson rejected plans for a peace centre on the site of the former Long Kesh prison.
In a 12-page diatribe issued from his Florida holiday home last week, Robinson blamed Sinn Fein for making it impossible to co-operate on the project.
Martin McGuinness accused the First Minister of “continually feeding the insatiable appetite of those who see life through a red, white and blue prism”.
“History is littered with unionist leaders who made this mistake,” he said.
Unionist hardliners have reiterated demands it be razed to the ground to prevent it becoming a “shrine” to the Irish republican armed struggle, and the ten hunger strikers who gave their lives there. There are fears the historic site could now be bulldozed.
However, the blueprints for the #300 million development of the site near Lisburn in County Antrim also include a number of large-scale projects aimed at bringing employment to the predominately unionist area.
Last Saturday, Mr McGuinness told a commemoration for IRA Volunteer and former Sinn Fein vice-president John Joe McGirl in Ballinamore, County Leitrim, that Robinson’s apparent u-turn was a mistake.
“It is a mistake not just because it jeopardises much-needed investment and jobs, but also for the message it sends to the vast majority of people -- nationalist and unionist -- who are rock solid behind the peace process,” he said.
“Some in the extremes of political unionism believe that they can unpick the Good Friday Agreement -- moves like this give them succour.”
Mr McGuinness said the DUP decision ignored the fact that the vast majority of unionists wanted to see the peace process succeed.
“They are not interested in re-fighting battles that are long over or harking back to a time that has long gone,” he said.
“They want to see their political leaders get on with the job of reconciliation and delivering in the government.”
He also argued many unionists were “embarrassed by the antics” of loyalists who attacked police in Belfast city centre riots earlier this month.
Commenting on the forthcoming round table talks to be chaired by former US envoy Richard Haass, Mr McGuinness said Sinn Fein would use the discussions to further underpin the north’s political institutions.
“We want to see agreement on parades, on flags and emblems and on dealing with the legacy of the past,” he said.
“The Haass talks are not about replacing the Parades Commission to satisfy the demands of the Orange Order.”
The deputy first minister said he was “entirely comfortable” with unionists seeking to express a British identity in a “sensible and non-confrontational fashion”.
“Likewise I expect them to acknowledge and recognise my Irishness in the same spirit - I do not believe that is too much to ask or expect,” he said.
But the DUP’s Edwin Poots hit back at Mr McGuinness’s criticisms and accused the deputy first minister of “absolute hypocrisy and cheek”.
“He needs to stop blaming everyone else for the action taken on the Maze and wake up to the reality that his party and their actions are responsible for the lack of confidence that any peace centre can be a shared space,” he said.
Meanwhile, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell claimed the public spat between the two biggest parties at Stormont had soured the political process.
“Last week we saw how Peter Robinson, viewing the mob violence in Belfast from his American holiday, played to the gallery of unionist extremism and made a funda-mental U-turn on the Maze in a bid to appease this minority,” the South Belfast MP said.
“Now days later we see his deputy, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, similarly move to appease his party who are obviously demanding an angry response over the airwaves.”