First Minister Peter Robinson stalls Maze peace centre

The DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson said his party listened to people's concerns

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First Minister Peter Robinson has said it would be wrong to proceed with the Maze peace centre in the absence of a consensus about how it will operate.

In a letter to DUP MPs and MLAs, Mr Robinson said there must be a change of attitude by Sinn Féin, especially towards victims of the IRA.

The Maze housed paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles from 1971 to 2000.

The peace centre was part of a £300m site redevelopment, but the DUP had been criticised for supporting it.

The party has come under growing pressure from other unionist parties, some IRA victims groups and the Orange Order.

In his letter, Mr Robinson rounded on his political critics accusing them of shifting position on the Maze and arguing that the economic development of the site was vital.

But, crucially, he also blamed Sinn Féin for undermining community relations by what he called their insensitive attitude towards IRA victims.

Mr Robinson ruled out any public use of the retained buildings - the one existing H-Block, where paramilitaries were held - and the hospital where Bobby Sands and other republican hunger strikers died.

Analysis

Had it not been for the holidays, it would have been said behind closed doors.

Instead, DUP leader Peter Robinson has provided some interesting clues to his political position and his mindset by publishing a letter to his assembly members and MPs.

It is not just the content of the letter that is worthy of analysis but the timing, the use of capital letters and under-scoring

And what about the timing.

Could this letter not have kept until September?

Read more

He also said the prospects for building any peace centre at the site near Lisburn must be linked to building a far wider consensus, not just support from within the DUP.

Sinn Féin's Raymond McCartney accused Mr Robinson of "weak political leadership".

"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 accused Mr Robinson of weak leadership.

"This U-turn on the Maze is very obviously influenced by a decision to play to the gallery of unionist extremism," he said.

Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Alllister said the DUP had made a "monumental climb-down".

"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.

"The logic of Mr Robinson's analysis of how Sinn Fein is still wedded to justifying terror, leads to the obvious question of why he still sustains them in government?"

'Victims'

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt welcomed the DUP's "U-turn" over the centre.

"I welcome the fact Peter Robinson has finally seen sense," he said.

"This is a victory for innocent victims, who made their voices heard and it was an honour for the Ulster Unionist Party to represent their views."

Analysis

The under-threat Maze peace centre - designed by world-famous architect Daniel Libeskind - was trumpeted as the key to unlocking the full jobs and economic potential of the wider 347-acre site near Lisburn.

The Maze/Long Kesh Development Corporation has promised 5,000 permanent jobs on site in an investment totalling £300m.

While the prison remnants and new peace centre comprised around 8% of the overall site, it is seen as crucial in fulfilling its full potential to attract a range of new businesses like health sciences and agri-foods.

Read more from Julian

Architects have been employed and European funding is in place, however, the peace centre could yet fall foul of a political logjam.

Over the years, the scheme to redevelop the former prison site has been controversial.

Ten men died on hunger strike in the Maze in 1981, as part of a campaign by republicans to secure political prisoner status. The jail closed in 2000.

The prison hospital, where many of the hunger strikers died, was among parts of the jail that were retained when the site was cleared for redevelopment.

A watch tower and one H-Block were also retained and planning permission for the new peace centre, close to the retained structures, was granted in April.

It has been designed by the Polish American architect Daniel Libeskind, renowned for his role on the site of New York's Ground Zero.

DUP leader Mr Robinson had previously rejected claims that the centre would become a shrine to terrorism, while Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness said it would be a "shrine to peace".

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