Peter Robinson’s letter has produced a predictable storm of criticism often combined with derision from his critics who point out, correctly enough, that the First Minister has just executed a spectacular U-turn.
Because it comes in a year which has seen the flag protests, sharp communal polarisations over contested marches and most recently the loyalist rioting in the centre of Belfast, the decision has been portrayed by Sinn Fein and the SDLP as a capitulation to mob rule and the TUV’s ‘anti-peace process’ agenda.
While there may be an element of truth in this, the reality is that the forces that culminated in his decision are longer-term and more deeply rooted.
The letter linked the stop on the Maze project to a broader lack of consensus on how Northern Ireland deals with its past: “If we cannot yet come to terms and reach agreement in a more general context on how to deal with the past it is improbable that in advance of that agreement , we can reach a consensus on dealing with one of the most controversial aspects of the past.”
This is undoubtedly true but if that is the case the question then raised is why this fundamental truth was ignored when Robinson and the DUP decided to give support to the project in the first place?
The potential economic benefits from the development of the Maze site may well have been a major consideration but given the centrality of the Maze and the hunger strikes to the narrative of the Troubles propagated by Sinn Fein and its core supporters it is remarkable how weak and undeveloped the DUP case was against those who argued that part of the Maze site would house a ‘shrine to terrorism’.
The weakness of the DUP case for the Maze was amplified by the fact that apart from occasional interventions by Robinson the only other figure of substance in the party who defended the project was the Lagan Valley MP Jeffery Donaldson.
Robinson’s defence tended to be a negative one: his UUP critics were hypocrites as the party had originally given its blessing to the project and the other critics were the ‘usual suspects’ like the TUV rejectionists. There was little concrete evidence given as to how the future visitor to the retained buildings would absorb more than a justificatory narrative about the men who died there.
In an interview in 2010 the loyalist ex-prisoners group, EPIC, while supporting a conflict transformation centre at the Maze, wanted the retained buildings including the prison hospital demolished: “For the international community, the two most significant events that took place in there would have been the hunger strike and the prison escape in 1983 so that is going to grasp the imagination of the international visitor.” Its argument has never been given a convincing response by the DUP.
The DUP political dominance within the unionist electorate and the contradictions and divisions within its main unionist opponents seems to have encouraged a complacency – ironically of the same sort that decades in power produced in the once-dominant Unionist Party.
It has proven adept at the messy business of keeping the Stormont Executive on the road but its focus on the politics of power at Stormont has led it to neglect the politics of support in the broader unionist community and the simmering resentment at what many in that community regard as the republican movement’s successful attempts to hegemonise the language and concepts with which the Troubles is discussed.
The DUP rose to dominance by denouncing Trimble’s ‘pushover’ unionism. Robinson has acted to prevent that label being hung around his neck.
l Henry Patterson is professor of politics at the University of Ulster