Not just harsh words - Maze has makings of 'full-scale drama'
- 15 August 2013
- From the section Northern Ireland
Had it not been for the holidays, it would have been said behind closed doors.
Instead, Peter Robinson has provided some interesting clues to his political position and his mindset by publishing a 12-page 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?
Was it internal difficulties inside the DUP that drove him on Wednesday night? Upset over Sinn Féin's decision to hold an IRA commemoration in Castlederg last weekend? Growing opposition to the Maze?
According to one DUP source, the decision had to be taken immediately as construction tenders for the centre were due to be issued in order that builders could be on site by next January.
That may explain the timing, but the letter clearly indicates pressure from opponents.
'Rage at critics'
The fact is the missive begins with a strident attack on opponents of the Maze peace centre, including the TUV and Ulster Unionist Party. Mr Robinson accuses these parties of brazenly scaremongering, mounting a "deceitful Maze campaign, inventing stories, and seeking to frighten and agitate those who have suffered most from violent terrorism".
As if to underscore his rage at these critics, he puts the next three sentences in capital letters including the words: "OUR OPPONENTS (sic) DAY IS OVER."
The UUP and TUV claimed victory. "What a night," crowed TUV leader Jim Allister. "Victory over Russia and victory on the Maze!"
Hence Sinn Féin's conclusion that Mr Robinson was guilty of weak leadership. They used to say that about David Trimble, the former UUP leader and first minister.
While Mr Robinson's critics may have been guilty of misleading the public about the creation of an IRA shrine, the fact is that perception is nine-tenths of reality.
Mr Robinson's problems began as soon as he launched the project. The DUP failed to win the argument and failed to win over the Orange Order and other key interest groups. Speaking about the Maze project to the BBC's The View in June, Danna Cochrane from the RUC George Cross Widow's Foundation declared: "Think again."
A TUV source claimed its petition against the Maze peace centre has gained tens of thousands of signatures, both door to door and at Twelfth demonstrations a few weeks ago. The source claimed this had not gone unnoticed by senior DUP figures and MLAs.
If that is true, and has been fed back into the party, it would help explain why the party decided to launch its own consultation in recent weeks.
Victims' campaigners were also preparing to challenge the project in the courts, it is claimed.
There was a whisper on Thursday from a DUP insider that Mr Robinson had considered sending another "back me or sack me letter" outlining why the Maze should proceed, but was told this was not where the mood of the party was. This is denied by MP Jeffrey Donaldson who has been left to trouble-shoot.
While Mr Robinson may have shorn up his supporters in the assembly, where the real power lies in the DUP, he has clearly upset the deputy first minister.
Sinn Féin has tried to say it was not surprised by Mr Robinson's letter but it was enough for the deputy first minister to break his own leave and return to Stormont Castle. Martin McGuinness is expected to break his silence when he addresses a republican commemoration in Leitrim this weekend.
Mr McGuinness' problem is the Maze peace project was always more important to Sinn Féin than the DUP. Sinn Féin insists that problems can be worked out through negotiation.
Certainly, Mr Robinson has hinted that all is not lost with the Maze project. "I am committed," he says, "to the building of a peace centre."
There is a "but" of course. His conditions are that it is a genuinely non-partisan shared space and has widespread support. What is the point, he suggests, in a peace centre that is a source of division?
This would lead to Northern Ireland being a global "laughing stock". It is not clear if Sinn Féin sees much point or much to sell in the development if it does not feature the historic buildings and a peace centre which addresses the past.
Mr Robinson's letter may have been sent to party supporters, but it was clearly meant for republican consumption. Sinn Féin, he argues, must convince unionists that they are "serious and sincere" about creating neutral space.
He suggests that every party in the executive must move forward rather than constantly looking to the past "seeking to airbrush foul elements of history".
He accuses Sinn Féin of lacking maturity and a commitment to genuine reconciliation. He lists their most recent actions as having damaged community relations.
A negotiating position?
He points to the decision to remove the union flag from Belfast City Hall except on designated days, its decision to name a children's play park in Newry after a "dead IRA terrorist", its lobbying on behalf of dissident republican prisoners and its weekend "coat-trailing" parade in Castlederg to "glorify terrorism".
In that context, it might have cleverer if Mr Robinson had simply addressed his letter to Mr McGuinness. That would have avoided making it look like he was giving in to the TUV and UUP.
One wonders if the letter is not part of a negotiating position ahead of talks chaired by US diplomat Richard Haass over issues such as flags, parades and the past. Not so, said a DUP insider. He claimed the Maze project never recovered from the decision to kill off the sports stadium. He added that the peace centre project was going nowhere except into mothballs for years.
Interestingly, a source close to Mr Robinson recently suggested in private that the relationship between Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness was key to stability. He claimed both were essential to making power-sharing work and that a breakdown in relations at the centre inevitably filtered to the ground.
The centre has surely been shaken - what will be the fall-out?
The deputy first minister must surely be sore that the first minister has reneged on a deal four months after announcing it. That is not a good start to attempts to cut another deal in the autumn with Mr Haass.
This is not just harsh words before Haass. This is the makings of a full-scale drama - with diminishing expectations of progress by Christmas.