The Stormont administration has suffered another blow to its credibility after the DUP ended its support for a plan to develop a peace centre at the site of the former Long Kesh H-Blocks.
The decision was revealed by the DUP’s First Minister Peter Robinson in an announcement this week from his vacation retreat in Florida, USA.
Robinson was accused by Sinn Fein of playing to the “gallery of unionist extremism” and of “weak political leadership” amid a difficult Protestant marching season. Republicans said his decision followed a pattern of the DUP leader undermining or backing away from pledges the party made in the aftermath of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Robinson had previously said he supported the Maze/Long Kesh project, despite claims from unionist hardliners and the Orange Order that it would become “a shrine to terrorism”.
There have been calls for the historic buildings to be preserved as a UNESCO world heritage site, along the lines of Robben Island in South Africa.
A compromise agreement had seen approval for a ‘conflict transformation centre’, with input from prisoners, prison warders and victims of the conflict.
Alongside a preserved H-block and other buildings, including the chapel and the hospital where the ten 1981 hunger strikers died, the original development plan called for the site to include a new home for the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society, the Ulster Aviation Society as well as a residential community.
But now there are fears that the tourist attraction might instead be destroyed -- former prison officers today called for the site to be bulldozed. There have also been claims the prison might yet be refurbished to once again house republican internees and other political prisoners.
CASTLEDERG PARADE BLAMED
Mr Robinson insisted the decision to now veto the peace centre plan was a consequence of Sinn Fein actions.
He cited the party’s support of a commemorative parade in Castlederg, County Tyrone, last weekend as an example of insensitivity to unionists and victims of the conflict.
“Given the behaviour of Sinn Fein, unionists just do not believe Sinn Fein is committed to creating and maintaining this kind of genuinely neutral shared space at the Maze,” he said, referring to the site by its official British name.
Sinn Fein branded the policy shift as a “hysterical reaction” to the “unionist paranoia whipped up by rejectionists”.
Derry representative Raymond McCartney accused Mr Robinson of “weak political leadership” and bowing to other unionist parties.
“He pens a letter telling how he is standing up to the TUV and UUP, yet what he is actually doing is following the agenda they have set for him,” he said.
“He talks about building a consensus at the same time as he talks up a veto. It is a nonsensical position.”
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell also questioned Mr Robinson’s leadership and said the north was walking into a “political crisis”.
“This U-turn on the Maze is very obviously influenced by a decision to play to the gallery of unionist extremism,” he said.
“It is evident that, from America, Peter Robinson saw the loyalist mob violence in Belfast city centre at the weekend and decided that he would use the Maze site as a means of appeasing this minority,” he said.
TUV leader Jim Allister said the DUP had made a “monumental climb-down” and hailed the move as a victory.
“Despite all the diversionary talk from Peter Robinson about the changing stance of others, his Maze U-turn is seismic, but none the less welcome for that,” he said.
But Sinn Fein branded the DUP’s policy shift as “cowardly”. Mr McCartney said Mr Robinson had been “totally absent over recent weeks” and had “long since departed on his holidays”.
“Peter Robinson has not issued one word of condemnation about the violent attacks on the police in Belfast on Friday night,” he said.
“He has been silent on the attack on the Belfast mayor. Yet he now claims to be exercised about a peaceful parade in Castlederg and can find the time to pen this lengthy letter, but time couldn’t be found to deal with much more serious and immediate issues on our streets.”