Richard Haass faces Northern political process going into reverse
Now up to parties to find a way though impasse
Artist’s impression of how the Peace Building and Conflict Resolution Centre at the Maze near Lisburn will look – will Sinn Fein now say “no Maze reconciliation centre, no overall Maze development” ?
Richard Haass arrives from the US to kickstart all-party talks on the North today. They are designed to resolve those most stubborn of issues – parades and protests, flags and emblems, and the past.
The political process still has momentum but at the moment it is one step forward and two steps backs – and that’s because of a deal reneged upon and because of parades and protests, flags and emblems, and the past.
What First Minister Peter Robinson calls “windbag commentators” have been talking up the scale of the political “crisis”. That seems to be overselling the state of political affairs but there’s no denying the relationship between the DUP leader and Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is fraught. The steps from fraught to crisis aren’t many.
In New York last week Robinson and McGuinness, when selling Northern Ireland to businesspeople, decided not to allow the controversy over the Maze prison site to overshadow that mission. Issues around Robinson’s decision to withdraw support for a peace and reconciliation centre at the Maze near Lisburn would be addressed on home soil, not in the Big Apple, McGuinness made clear in New York. He said he was in problem-solving mode but McGuinness watchers will have detected a certain steely coldness to his words. Sinn Féin believes that Robinson reneged on a deal agreed in April to have the peace and reconciliation centre built on the Maze site.
Then it was all mutual “Martins” and “Peters” from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister as they envisioned a multi-faceted complex at the Maze creating a highly ambitious 5,000 permanent and 2,000 construction jobs. But by the middle of last month under external and internal unionist pressure Robinson wrote a very long missive from Florida explaining why he could not support the reconciliation centre.
Part of the excuse was that republican summer parade in Castlederg, Co Tyrone, commemorating two IRA men who blew themselves up with their own bomb 40 years ago. That did cause ructions. But it seemed clear, however, that the concerted opposition to the Maze project from Protestant victims’ groups, from Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt and the Traditional Unionist Voice party, and consequently from some spooked members of his own DUP caused him to walk away from the Maze agreement.
That triggered some local media and observer analysis that Robinson had lost his nerve on the Maze, and that his retreat from the previously agreed reconciliation centre showed weakness and raised questions about his leadership.
Those assaults triggered the aforementioned “windbag commentators” response. In another letter from America for the Belfast Telegraph last week he insisted he had no intention of quitting politics and expressed confidence in the future of the North. Robinson even offered a nice line in pugnacious but wry self-reflective humour: “I have talked about the characteristics of some others, but what about myself? I keep my ear to the ground. I know there are some in the press who consider me abrasive and obstinate.