Leading unionists split over plans at Maze site

The TUV's Jim Allister
The TUV's Jim Allister

TUV leader Jim Allister and former UUP chief Tom Elliott have accused the DUP of “hypocrisy and rolling over yet again to republican demands” after Health Minister Edwin Poots confirmed his party was backing the peace and reconciliation centre at the Maze prison site.

Describing the plan as “a shrine to hunger strikers at the Maze – as already outlined by Sinn Fein” – Mr Allister added: “It is blindingly obvious that the Maze site will become a place of republican pilgrimage, an IRA mecca in the heart of an overwhelmingly unionist constituency.”

And Mr Elliott insisted that the DUP had been “up to their old tricks of betraying the electorate.” He added: “We shouldn’t be surprised. We know that – after years of ‘never, never, never, never’ – they couldn’t wait to share power with Sinn Fein after they got into power.

“Now they have turned turtle over the Maze. In 2007, Sammy Wilson said that there was almost unanimous opposition by football supporters to the proposed sports stadium being sited at the Maze.

“He went on to say that there was total opposition by unionists to the provision of a shrine to hunger strikers at the Maze, which, he added, was being promoted by Sinn Fein.

“Then, in 2009, DUP Sports Minister Gregory Campbell scrapped the stadium plan, claiming that the Maze plan did not enjoy sufficient political consensus and that it was not financially viable. But suddenly this shrine – to quote Sammy Wilson’s words – does become viable, even though the money has been given for the development of Windsor Park for future international football matches.”

Mr Allister quoted deputy DUP leader Nigel Dodds as saying that “however it is dressed up, whatever spin is deployed, the preservation of a section of the H-blocks – including the hospital wing – would become a shrine to the terrorists who committed suicide in the Maze in the 1980s. That would be obnoxious to the vast majority of people and is something unionist people cannot accept”.

The TUV leader added:
“Now the DUP are engaged in the very spin which their own deputy leader warned about.”

Speaking on the BBC’s The View on Thursday, Mr Poots – whose Lagan Valley constituency includes the Maze – confirmed DUP support for the project, adding that the sooner the site was developed, the better. It is thought that planning approval for the site, which is to include a peace and reconciliation centre, will be granted before Easter.

The minister insisted that the site would not become a republican shrine.

“Just like the policing and justice debate that took place, where people were saying we’re going to get Gerry Kelly as our justice minister, that was dealt with,” he said. “If this actually happens, the rumours, the scaremongers will be dealt with and people will see the facts and it will not be a republican shrine.

“We will ensure that the story that is told is fair and it is balanced and it reflects what happened. And what happened was that over 25 years terrorism reigned in Northern Ireland. Thank God we don’t have that today.”

Former IRA prisoner Seanna Walsh said that the centre would reflect the stories of all sides involved in the Maze – republicans, loyalists, the police, the Army and prison officers – and pointed out that a Second World War aircraft exhibition already existed there.

He added that the conflict resolution centre will provide a place for visitors from around the world to exchange views on conflict transformation, a focus for education and research about the Troubles, together with exhibition space and an archive.

But Mr Elliott told the News Letter yesterday: “The Prison Officers Association has already said it doesn’t want to know, and I have grave doubts whether the RUC GC Association will support it. They already have their own memorial gardens, which are dignified and well-appointed, and my contacts with the constabulary are opposed.

“Perhaps the loyalist prisoners may want to get involved – I haven’t spoken to anyone there – but to surmise that this project will reflect everyone’s view is simply naive and wrong. The decision to place the annual Royal Agricultural Show there is the right one – and the sports stadium should have been there.

“I originally advised certain DUP members to be careful during the stadium debate that they could end up without a showpiece sports arena, but with a shrine to terrorism – and that’s exactly what is happening.”

n See Morning View, page 22