Unionist leaders have almost unanimously welcomed the DUP’s U-turn over the Maze redevelopment project.
On Wednesday night, First Minister Peter Robinson told party members that he has stopped the peace centre proceeding – as well as the use of the retained prison buildings for republican or other tours.
The former prison hospital – where 10 republican inmates died while on hunger strike in 1981 – an H-block and a watchtower were retained when the site was cleared for redevelopment.
Explaining his decision, Mr Robinson said that Sinn Fein had in recent months “seriously damaged community relations” by its treatment of IRA victims, listing numerous events including the naming of a children’s play park after a dead IRA man and “the disgraceful decision by Sinn Fein to hold a coat-trailing parade in Castlederg to glorify IRA terrorism”.
Mr Robinson went on: “These actions expose a lack of maturity and commitment to genuine reconciliation. The contrasting and contradictory speeches by Declan Kearney and Gerry Kelly only serve to expose the fact that Sinn Fein is trapped by their own warped self-serving mantra.”
The multi-million pound proposals for the Maze site have been mired in controversy for years. Plans had been drawn up to build a multi-sports centre for rugby, soccer and gaelic games but hit the buffers when the then DUP sports minister Gregory Campbell pulled the plug in 2009.
In recent months, organisations representing former security force members and many victims’ groups have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to retaining the now listed buildings.
Following Mr Robinson’s announcement, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt described the policy change as a “victory for innocent victims”.
Mr Nesbitt said: “I welcome the fact Peter Robinson has finally seen sense. This is a victory for innocent victims, who made their voices heard and it was an honour for the Ulster Unionist Party to represent their views. We look forward to doing so again, and again, not least in the forthcoming Haass talks.”
He added: “As to Mr Robinson’s ridiculous attempts to blame the Ulster Unionists, we will say nothing unless and until he acknowledges the role played at that time by his DUP colleague Edwin Poots, both as a member of the Maze panel and as a Lisburn councillor.
“Mr Robinson also fails to explain why he did not address what he clearly feels was a mess during the St Andrews negotiations.”
TUV leader Jim Allister congratulated all those who fought hard against “the Provo project” at the Maze.
“Every signature on our petition helped force the DUP into a monumental climbdown. We must ensure there is no backsliding on the issue,” he said.
“Despite all the diversionary talk from Peter Robinson about the changing stance of others, his Maze U-turn is seismic, but nonetheless welcome for that.” Mr Allister added: “Patently, OFMDFM is and will be in disarray over the Maze, which, of course, typifies the paralysis and dysfunctionalism at the heart and top of this failed government.”
The Maze – originally known as Long Kesh – housed republican and loyalist paramilitaries for almost 30 years during the Troubles. It closed finally in 2000 after prisoners were released en masse under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
The Royal Ulster Agricultural Society agreed to relocate to the site from Balmoral and hosted its first annual show at the Maze earlier this year.
David McNarry of UKIP described Mr Robinson’s withdrawal of support for the Maze project was a “massive climbdown”.
He said: “UKIP challenged the DUP and like others who did likewise were castigated by DUP spokespersons.
“But hard as they tried the DUP couldn’t ‘sell the sell-out’. It is they who have retreated from the mess they alone created. The electorate will not forget the DUP’s declared original intention was to build a terrorist shrine.”
PUP leader Billy Hutchinson said it would be wrong to proceed with the Maze peace centre in the absence of a consensus about how it will operate.
He said: “We welcome the remarks by the First Minister as a positive step. The PUP has been the only party to hold a consistent position on the Maze site and our opinion remains that it should be razed to the ground.”
Ulster People’s Forum chairman Jamie Bryson said: “I would certainly praise the coming together of PUP, TUV, UKIP and UUP as well as the countless many other groups who united in opposition to this preposterous idea.”
Independent unionist councillor for the Armagh district Paul Berry said the “eventual U-turn” was a result of “effective unionist co-operation by the various unionist parties but most importantly the grassroots unionists”.