The Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister has frozen terror victims out of consultations regarding the Maze peace centre while engaging heavily with ex-prisoners on the same issue, it is claimed.
Kenny Donaldson of Innocent Victims United (IVU), an umbrella group which claims some 8,000 members across 14 groups, is making the blistering attack on the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), backed by OFMDFM committee chairman Mike Nesbitt MLA.
Mr Donaldson says terror victims gave a resounding “no” to the centre during an initial consultation by the Strategic Investment Board (SIB) at the Community Relations Council (CRC) in June 2009.
He was present at the meeting, and says victims called for fuller consultation with more groups. But instead of a wider consultation, he says that OFMDFM then narrowed the focus and relied only on the Victims Commission to ascertain victims’ feelings. However OFMDFM also went on to carry out 26 meetings with republican and loyalist ex-prisoner groups about the centre, he said.
Mr Donaldson said: “It is IVU’s belief that government realised the depth of opposition which existed from innocent victims and survivors towards the proposed development, as communicated at the June 2009 meeting, and that as a means of sidelining such views, it was then agreed that consultation would not take place directly with such individuals.”
He said this approach was “in stark contrast” to how government approached consultation with ex-prisoner groups, saying OFMDFM had 26 such meetings from 2010-2012. He claimed it was “not an exaggeration to say that we are currently fighting for the soul and integrity of this country”, adding that republicans’ purpose for the centre is to clear their ‘martyrs’ from charges of terrorism and rebrand them as “freedom fighters”.
Mr Nesbitt was present with Mr Donaldson at the 2009 meeting and says SIB had been briefed by OFMDFM to consult those present.
“It was a long and contentious meeting,” Mr Nesbitt said, “with all involved going straight to point three; republicans arguing the Maze was the only acceptable venue, with others taking the view it was the last place on earth to build such a centre.
“The Commission for Victims and Survivors was supposed to consult victims through a Victims Forum, but at the time I left, that forum was still in ‘pilot’ phase, and to my mind could not offer any other advice other than saying the building at the Maze would be highly controversial.
“I note OFMDFM did not consult the commission until August 2010, several months after I resigned as a commissioner. I am shocked that thereafter they consulted prisoner groups dozens of times, but failed to offer the same opportunities to victims groups – and indeed consulted the commission only three or four times in total.”
OFMDFM has been repeatedly invited to comment since late Friday but has not done so. The DUP was invited to comment yesterday but has not done so either.
Asked what role it played in consultation, a Victims Commission spokesman said: “The Victims and Survivors Forum is the place for consultation and discussion as per legislation, and we will take our advice from them.”
Sinn Fein responded that the centre is for “celebrating diversity” adding that “respecting each other and each other’s history is essential as we move further away from conflict”.