A letter from Peter Robinson to his DUP colleagues:
In normal circumstances I would provide you with a briefing at our regular weekly elected members meeting but in spite of it being a holiday month I thought it might be worthwhile if I were to bring everyone up to date with developments relating to the MLK site. I would appreciate it if each of you, in turn, would confidentially brief Councillors within your constituencies.
I am aware that there has been a considerable amount of dishonest campaigning about the Executive’s plans for the Maze site. It is always easy to trade in falsehoods about such matters in advance decisions being made. Given the character of the politicians involved, the intervening period was always going to be used for mischief and cheap, nasty and fraudulent party politics. But then we all know this routine. We had it when policing and justice was being devolved. The UUP and TUV trotted out every scare story they could dream up. They said Gerry Kelly was going to be the Justice Minister. They claimed Martin McGuinness would be appointing and sacking judges. They even alleged that the police and courts would become all-Ireland matters to be dealt with in the North South Ministerial Council. All lies. Has anyone heard them apologise or admit they lied to the public? No. They brazenly move on to the next scaremongering subject without a shred of embarrassment or shame.
Since this present deceitful Maze campaign began we have consistently and frequently stressed that we will not permit any shrine to be erected at the Maze and that no decision had been taken about the content and programme for any new Peace Centre or the use of the retained buildings, but that has not stopped our political opponents from inventing stories and seeking to frighten and raise concerns by agitating those who have suffered most from violent terrorism.
WELL! OUR OPPONENTS DAY IS OVER. I CAN NOW BE CLEAR AND SPECIFIC ABOUT THE ONLY WAY FORWARD THAT I WILL ENDORSE FOR THE MAZE. AS YOU KNOW WE HAVE A VETO OVER THE CONTENT OF ANY PROPOSAL.
But first let me remind you of the history of the project. The proposal to develop the Maze site began during the period when the Ulster Unionist Party was the main Northern Ireland party. David Trimble, the UUP leader, appointed two members to the Maze Panel – one of them, David Campbell (the then UUP Party Chairman) was appointed as the Maze Panel Chairman.
This UUP-led Maze Panel recommended (and the UUP Leader publicly endorsed) a proposal that a range of the existing prison buildings, including the prison hospital, should be statutorily listed and retained. The Panel also recommended (and the UUP Leader publicly endorsed) a proposal to build a Peace and Conflict Resolution Centre and locate it within the retained prison buildings.
As a Victims Commissioner, the present UUP Leader was consulted about the use of the MLK site and offered no opposition to these proposals. In addition the proposals were then supported by the PUP and only one guess is needed to conclude why parties that initiated and supported the Maze project are now conveniently opposing it. No guess is needed to discover why the TUV oppose the Maze project – their default position is to oppose everything.
You already know I would not have chosen the Maze site as the location for the Peace Centre but that decision was taken before I became First Minister. In truth, even now, if it could be removed from the Maze plan and built elsewhere without scuttling the economic development of the rest of the site I would do it.
However, the UUP endorsed decision tied it into this site and that decision can only be rescinded if nationalists and republicans agreed to do so. We all know they will not.
So, by initiating and endorsing the project (even though they now pose as opponents of the scheme for unprincipled party political purposes) the UUP decision has had unalterable and lasting consequences. Once the proposal was endorsed by the UUP and its then leader it became locked into Northern Ireland government policy and as a binding decision it could only be changed by cross-party agreement.
The DUP has consistently opposed the listing and retention of the former prison buildings. Indeed, when my colleagues Jeffrey Donaldson and Edwin Poots formally objected to the retention of the buildings, they stated in a letter to the then Environment and Heritage Service in February 2004 that they were concerned about the impact that the listing of certain buildings at the Maze Prison would have upon the development potential of this site. Furthermore we strenuously objected to the concept of the proposed Peace Centre being located within the retained prison buildings. Unfortunately, as I have stated these buildings have the protection of listed status.
Therefore when I came to office as First Minister I inherited this UUP-led proposal to locate a Peace Centre at the Maze and a legally enforceable listing which required the retention of a range of prison buildings.
At this stage I had only two workable options – the first was to try to decontaminate and manage the UUP-led proposal in a way that would enable the extensive economic development to continue, the second was to block the development of the site and thus forego the potential of 5,000 jobs and hundreds of millions of pounds of investment.
With the level of unemployment and poverty in the Province the latter option was unthinkable and indeed, when challenged, my Maze opponents refuse to say that they would have blocked the economic development of the site.
While the DUP legally cannot unilaterally remove the Peace Centre from the Maze plan our veto does empower us to stipulate the circumstances that must exist and the conditions that must be agreed before such a development can take place. Such requirements mean that the Peace Centre cannot be built until these requirements are met.
Since I became First Minister I have reached several significant agreements on the Maze with the deputy First Minister. We agreed that the Peace Centre should be a stand-alone building rather than being incorporated within the retained buildings as had been suggested in the UUP-led plan. We agreed to it being located away and across the road from the former prison buildings. We further determined that the character and content of the Peace Centre would have to be jointly agreed before construction and operation. We also resolved that any use of the retained buildings had to be jointly agreed.
An additional major step was taken when we agreed that a Maze Development Corporation be established and we passed over to it the land for development subject only to the limited areas where our approval is required. This has permitted the Corporation to start the economic development of the site and already the RUAS project is successfully underway.
On the basis of these agreements I confidently and publicly stated, and can now clearly demonstrate, that the plans for the Maze will not incorporate anything that could be interpreted as a terrorist shrine nor will they glorify terrorism. While such a prospect was always utterly ridiculous given our stand against terrorism and the composition of the MLK Development Corporation our political opponents were prepared to cruelly and falsely exploit the genuine fears of innocent victims by circulating entirely inaccurate and bogus claims about what would be happening on the site.
So what is the basis for further progress consistent with our “no shrine” commitment? There are two elements that have attracted controversy – the new Peace Centre and the Listed Buildings. The two are often mistakenly conflated and confused. So let me deal with them both.
The Listed Buildings
My approach to the Peace Centre and the Listed Buildings is in line with the DUP policy of creating shared space. The MLK site must be shared space – inviting and welcoming to all. The Maze site as a whole must be developed in a manner that gains widespread support throughout our divided community. We need a community consensus about dealing with matters relating to the past.
No matter what approach we take to the retained buildings, and no matter which section of the community a person may come from, everyone accepts that the listed prison buildings are seeping with highly controversial, divisive and painful history and their potential use is charged with emotion. 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 wider agreement, we can reach a consensus on dealing with one of the most controversial aspects of the past.
There is no community consensus about the future use of the retained buildings. The use of these listed buildings cannot proceed ahead of such widespread community agreement. Without that community buy-in not only would the use of the Listed Buildings cause division but that division would quickly transfer to and tarnish the site as a whole. Nobody could believe that this would be a sensible way forward. So in the absence of widespread cross-community agreement on how the Listed Buildings might be used we are prohibiting any public use of these buildings.
The Peace Centre
By its name and nature a Peace Centre should not and must not be a controversial building. Far from glorifying terrorism a peace centre is about ending, preventing and exposing the deeply painful and divisive legacy of terrorism. A Peace Centre advocates the use of exclusively peaceful and democratic means to resolve disputes.
I believe the International status we could create would allow us to attract delegations from around the world to study conflict resolution and the ending of violent struggles across the globe.
The centre could also be the hub for the Shared Society programmes we have already announced and those others that will be launched in the future.
The present controversy relates (beyond the irreversible UUP decision to locate it at the Maze) to how the story of the Maze site or more broadly the history of Northern Ireland would be told by any exhibition or display or guided tour of the facility. The truth is that the Peace Centre need tell no such story.
Internationally the story of Northern Ireland is one of hope and inspiration. There are many hundreds of communities and regions across the globe at risk of conflict, experiencing conflict or emerging from conflict. Many of these regions look to the experience of Northern Ireland for help and support.
The Centre could maximise the opportunities that arise from this interest and bring new employment and investment to Northern Ireland through what is an export industry. This international industry is growing significantly and Northern Ireland is perfectly poised to maximise its unique place within this market.
None of this requires any exhibition, tour, display, museum, memorabilia, material or presentation of Maze or Northern Ireland historic content. The Peace Centre could have facilitated international exchange, education, research, teaching and learning, along with programmes relating to a shared future for Northern Ireland. It would not portray any version of our history nor would the Centre propagate any party political dogma. I am committed to the building of a Peace Centre but only on the basis that it is genuinely non-partisan shared space and it has widespread support throughout the community. Northern Ireland would be a laughing stock across the world if its Peace Centre was the cause and source of division.
And there the problem arises! Given the behaviour of Sinn Fein unionists just do not believe Sinn Fein is committed to creating and maintaining this kind of genuinely neutral shared space at the Maze. But the project will only work if there is endorsement from both sections of our community. Frankly, it is not for me to change this perception – I share it – Sinn Fein must convince unionists that they are serious and sincere.
If every Executive party was acting in good faith and wanting to move forward rather than constantly foraging into the past and seeking to airbrush foul elements of history whilst attempting to put a sanitising gloss on their heinous crimes, then things might be different.
But events of recent months and in particular the insensitive attitude displayed by Sinn Fein towards the innocent victims of IRA terrorism has seriously damaged community relations and set us all back in terms of promoting genuine reconciliation and building a shared future. This includes the Sinn Fein promoted decision to remove the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall on all but designated days; the Sinn Fein led decision to name a children’s play park in Newry after a dead IRA terrorist who was convicted of possession of a weapon used in the Kingsmill massacre; the admission by Sinn Fein that they have lobbied the Parole Commissioners to seek the release of dissident republican terrorist prisoners; Sinn Fein’s provocative and aggressive behaviour towards unionist culture and loyal order parades and latterly and most recently, the disgraceful decision by Sinn Fein to hold a coat-trailing parade in Castlederg to glorify IRA terrorism and deliberately cause further hurt and pain to the families of the 29 innocent victims murdered by PIRA in that area.
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. They talk of the need for ‘grown up politics’ but then seek at every opportunity to justify the vile and heinous crimes of the IRA and to rewrite the history of the troubles in a vain and pathetic attempt to portray the IRA’s actions as somehow justified. Do they not realise that their glorification and justification of IRA terrorism only serves to encourage those who today would take up arms in opposition to the peace process? They cannot face two ways at the one time. Sinn Fein must support genuine efforts to promote healing and reconciliation. There can be no halfway house on these matters if the hopes for peace of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland are to be fully realised.
For the centre to be successful in promoting peace and reconciliation there must be a broad consensus about how it will operate. We have consulted widely and it is clear that the necessary wide-ranging consensus does not exist at present. It is my view that it would be wrong to proceed in the absence of a much broader consensus. Further consultation, discussion and negotiation will be required to enable progress on building peace, dealing with the legacy of the past and achieving a greater level of reconciliation. Clearly, the prospects for building a Peace Centre are inextricably linked to such progress.
The DUP is committed to participation in the Haass initiative and we hope that genuine steps can be taken to build a shared future. However, this will require a change of attitude by Sinn Fein, especially towards the innocent victims of IRA terrorism.
In the course of this briefing I have several times referred to the need to gain widespread agreement and a broad consensus. I should perhaps explain how I believe we should gauge such a level of support. While there is no precise formula that can be adopted it means more than the support of our own party. It must be a consensus within each and across both sections of our community and in my view that must include both victims who have been traumatised by the conflict, and security force personnel who have paid such a high price for their bravery.
If and when we ever reach the time when we need to arrive at a conclusion on this matter I believe we should consult widely and perhaps set up a representative working group to make recommendations.
In conclusion and in summary – We have established a fundamental principle that the Maze site must be developed as shared space. If people will not share a street or road it is self-evident that more work is needed to ensure equality in the way that the concept of shared space is taken forward.
Whatever decision others may take, as First Minister, I have set the limits of my position and that of my party I have provided some considerable detail about our intentions relating to the development. I wanted you to be up to date when the matter becomes public to answer any questions about our position.