DUP caught up in Maze

Aerial view of the development at the former Maze prison site Image copyright Developers' handout
Image caption An aerial view of the development at the former Maze prison site

When the last prisoners left the Maze in 2000, it marked the end of a troubled era which had seen death and suffering both inside and outside the jail walls. But few can have predicted the twists and turns of the stalled attempts to develop the former jail since then.

Tony Blair hoped the Maze would rise like a phoenix from the ashes, providing a home for people from both sides to come together and enjoy soccer, rugby and Gaelic games in a £55m multi-sports stadium.

But after opposition from unionists concerned about creating an IRA shrine, and Northern Ireland football fans who did not want to abandon Windsor Park, the former DUP sports minister Gregory Campbell dropped the plan.

After months of inactivity, the first and deputy first ministers breathed new life into the Maze development with a deal on a new peace building centre.

Last year, the European Union confirmed £18 million in funding and then the pace quickened with the appointment of a development corporation, the involvement of the acclaimed architect Daniel Libeskind, the granting of planning permission, and the successful staging of the first Royal Ulster Agricultural Show on the former jail site.

Scaremongers

However, anyone who drew the conclusion that the momentum behind the Maze was unstoppable had not paid any attention to the growing anti-Maze camp within the wider unionist community.

The DUP could shrug its shoulders at opposition from the victims' campaigner Willie Frazer. But when Mr Frazer was joined not just by the TUV's Jim Allister, but by the Ulster Unionists, UKIP, the PUP, the Orange Order and other victims' groups like the RUC George Cross Widows' association, things became politically uncomfortable for the DUP leadership.

Image caption Much of the site was cleared for development following the prison's closure in 2000

Initially, the party's response was to portray the opponents of the peace centre as scaremongers. The first minister famously said some of the critics should be taken away by men in white coats, while one DUP MLA controversially used, then later retracted, the term "nutters".

But it is clear that the anti-peace centre campaign made an impact. One source told me the first minister considered taking a "back me or sack me" approach to the issue.

Lagan Valley MLA Jeffrey Donaldson denies that, insisting that over the last fortnight the DUP discussed the matter. The letter withdrawing support for the Maze peace centre was "substantially written" before the first minister left for America, then given to party members "for their feedback" before it was made public on Thursday.

Tongues wagging

Mr Robinson argues there is not sufficient consensus to proceed with the centre and that his party is "prohibiting any public use" of the existing H-Block and the hospital building where Bobby Sands and other hunger strikers died.

Image caption Ten republican hunger strikers died at the Maze prison in 1981

These actions will do more harm to his party's relationship than any of his words blaming republicans for damaging community relations by restricting the flying of the union flag or organising their recent parade at Castlederg.

Quite what impact this will have on the future development of the wider Maze site is unclear. Sinn Fein's Raymond McCartney accuses Mr Robinson of undermining the potential for creating 5,000 jobs. The DUP's Sammy Wilson insists there is no reason "except republican petulance" for the economic development not to continue.

Besides the future of the Maze, other party politicians' tongues are already wagging about the future of the first minister. Does this shore up his leadership or constitute a fatal blow to his authority? And after this will the first and deputy first ministers be able to rebuild anything like a working relationship in time for the start of the talks to be chaired by Richard Haass next month?

At the Maze, Stormont politicians have already dumped a stadium, now they look set to jettison an international peace centre. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, losing one high-profile development may be considered a misfortune, to lose two is starting to look like carelessness.

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