Northern Ireland

No Stormont permission for Ulster Aviation Society Maze open days

RAF Buccaneer
Image caption An RAF Buccaneer is among the planes exhibited at previous open days

An aviation society show has been cancelled due to a row between the DUP and Sinn Féin over the development of the former Maze Prison site.

The Ulster Aviation Society has cancelled two open days to be held this month after it did not get approval for the events from Stormont.

The use of the site needed permission from the first and deputy first ministers.

The DUP has said it was blocked by Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness.

In August of last year, First Minister Peter Robinson halted plans to build a peace centre as part of the development of the site of the former prison outside Lisburn in County Antrim, a decision that caused tension between his party, the DUP, and Sinn Féin.

Afterwards, Mr McGuinness said no further development of the site would take place "until this is satisfactorily resolved".

The Ulster Aviation Society said 5,000 people attended last year's open day on a Saturday.

This year they wanted to hold it on two days, to allow more enthusiasts the chance to get close to some of its aircraft.

On Tuesday, the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson said: "The first minister [Peter Robinson] approved the open day but unfortunately it was blocked by the deputy first minister [Martin McGuinness] who said that he couldn't consent to the open day to go ahead in the absence of agreement on what happens to the maintained prison buildings on the Maze site.

"Frankly it is unbecoming of people in government that we have a minister who decides to block an event that is very popular with the public, all to make a political point.

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Jeffrey Donaldson accused Martin McGuinness of being 'petty'

"I think it is sad, and I have to say petty, that the deputy first minister has decided to punish a charity and punish the public - thousands of whom attend these open days every year - over politics."

Sinn Féin assembly member Caitríona Ruane said the society's open days could proceed if the DUP agreed to re-open access to the historic prison building.

"There was an agreement on the development and use of the entire site which would have opened up its enormous potential in terms of job creation and economic development."

"This was reflected in the agreed Programme for Government and was backed by £18m in European funding.

Image caption Caitríona Ruane said the open day could go ahead if access to prison buildings was reinstated

"This agreement was reached after months of discussion and negotiation and was a compromise position which would open up the protected historic buildings at the Long Kesh site.

"At the behest of negative voices within the DUP, Peter Robinson then reneged on this agreement, unilaterally stopping all progress and preventing access to the prison building for thousands of tourists and other visitors. That remains the DUP position.

"The DUP cannot cherry-pick the parts of an agreement which they support and block the elements they have difficulty with. That is not how negotiations work.

"Sinn Féin is willing today to agree that the UAS open day can proceed as requested if access to the prison buildings is reinstated. We can then come back to discuss the wider issues around the full development of the site."

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Media captionRay Burrows from the Ulster Aviation Society said they had to cancel the event after being refused permission by Stormont

TUV spokesperson Samuel Morrison said: "Sinn Féin/IRA's blatant politicisation of this charity in an attempt to resurrect the Maze shrine is totally reprehensible.

"The fact that they are prepared to do so will only serve to confirm unionists in the belief that they were correct to force the DUP into a U-turn on the issue."

Alliance MLA Trevor Lunn said there could be "no excuse" for blocking the event.

He said: "It is ridiculous that this event has been cancelled as a result of a spat between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

'Petty politics'

"There is a severe lack of leadership coming from these two parties. OFMDFM has a massive problem of inaction on many issues and this is just the latest example.

"The claim by Sinn Féin that they have blocked this event as a result of the DUP's veto of the conflict resolution centre is not a valid excuse. It is just an example of petty politics."

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt said the blocking of the open day was "petty and vindictive".

"It is totally unacceptable that the Ulster Aviation Society should be made to suffer because of Sinn Féin bloody mindedness," he said.

"This is an absolute disgrace and totally unacceptable. There is little point in Martin McGuinness travelling the world trying to drum up jobs, investment and tourism when his party is incapable of agreeing to an aviation society open day taking place."

'Absolutely disgusted'

The chair of the Ulster Aviation Society, Ray Burrows, said that after waiting five months for a decision, the uncertainty meant they could not proceed.

"I am absolutely disgusted. We are an educational society and why we should be dragged into the political arena, which we obviously have been, I just do not know," he said.

"We've already had three open days at the Maze/Long Kesh site and they were getting bigger and better and we were getting more people in to participate," he said.

"All of that has had to be postponed just simply because we did not get a decision."

The open days were planned for the weekend of 23 and 24 August.

With just over a fortnight to go, Mr Burrows said without confirmation that it could go ahead, the charity could not risk paying out thousands of pounds needed to host the event.

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