Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has shocked the UDA after asking to write an article in the paramilitary organisation’s magazine to defend his stance on the Maze.
Mr Nesbitt contacted the UDA’s political advisors, the UPRG, requesting that they publish a ‘right of reply’ after an article in The Loyalist magazine which was critical of the UUP’s opposition to the Maze peace centre.
A lengthy article in last month’s edition of the magazine – which regularly includes UDA tributes to dead ‘volunteers’ – argued that unionism should make its case within the new peace centre, rather than boycott the project.
The article questioned the motives of the UUP in now attacking the proposals, when the party had initially been central to proposals for a peace centre at the Maze.
However, Mr Nesbitt contacted the UPRG after the article was published and requested a response.
His article, which will be published in the magazine next week but has been seen by the News Letter, stresses that the UUP does not oppose the development of the Maze site and does not oppose the creation of a peace centre, but believes that such a centre should not be at the Maze.
Recalling his time as victims’ commissioner, when the Maze peace centre was debated, Mr Nesbitt said: “It was clear to me then that the Maze was the most divisive plot of land in the whole of Northern Ireland on which to build a peace centre.
“I assumed someone in power would report that back, and common sense would prevail.”
However, Mr Nesbitt said that had not happened and argued that “it has been very clear from the public debate since planning permission was granted for this new centre that it will be about the story of the prison, not the Troubles”.
He said: “We have no desire for any aspect of what happened to be ‘airbrushed or minimised’ as Plum Smith puts it, but neither should the focus linger on ex-inmates at the cost of innocent victims.”
The UUP leader added: “From last month’s Loyalist, I assume this article will not play well with your readership.
“So be it. I will do what is right, not what is popular.”
A south Belfast UPRG spokesman said: “We are surprised that the leader of the UUP felt the need to respond to such a well-balanced article in The Loyalist magazine about the Maze-Long Kesh site.
“The article in question also called for unionist unity. However we feel the smaller unionist parties are dividing unionism more than ever and unfortunately in helping to do this they are using and manipulating the victims’ sector to enhance their own particular political view point.
“The event at Lisburn Orange Hall on Thursday was unbalanced with nobody in the audience being offered the opportunity to challenge the view of the speakers who were clearly set on their own agenda which is clearly to help increase their votes at the next elections.”