Robinson and McGuinness present united front to critics

Portrayal of Maze centre as shrine to terrorism ‘scaremongering garbage’, says First Minister

First Minister Peter Robinson (left) and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (right) with chairman of the corporation behind the development of the former Maze Prison site, Terence Brannigan, at  the site yesterday. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire

First Minister Peter Robinson (left) and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (right) with chairman of the corporation behind the development of the former Maze Prison site, Terence Brannigan, at the site yesterday. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Thu, Apr 25, 2013, 09:02

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness appear to have got their political marriage back on track.

The fact that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister were prepared to turn up together at the launch of the grand plan for the Maze prison site near Lisburn yesterday demonstrated they are at least trying their best to hang in together for the long haul.

Their joint appearance was particularly challenging for Robinson. In recent days Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt has linked up with Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister and UK Independence Party Assembly member David McNarry in opposing the proposed conflict resolution centre which will be part of the Maze development.

It was easy for McGuinness to tweet: “Ulster Unionists joining forces with UKIP & Jim Allister to oppose new PEACE Centre at MLK (Maze/Long Kesh), my o my how the once mighty have fallen!!”

That was a dig at Nesbitt, perceived as liberal in his politics and the head of a party which helped create the Belfast accord, siding with the decidedly anti-agreement Jim Allister and the right-wing Ukip.

Grievous suffering

But it’s much trickier for Robinson. Having the conflict resolution centre sitting alongside a preserved Maze H-Block has triggered the ire of a number of victims’ groups who have suffered grievously at the hands of the IRA and other republican paramilitaries. It prompted Nesbitt, Allister and McNarry to advocate relocation of the centre and demolition of the old prison buildings.

Regardless of what he called a “cheap shot” tweet from McGuinness, the UUP leader has gone on the offensive regarding the centre, portraying it as a shrine to terrorism, and obviously seeing it as an issue that could damage the DUP. Over recent days the matter has been hotly debated, with some unionists expressing fears it will serve to lionise Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers while others argued it would become a huge tourist attraction, rather than a “shrine”.

Therefore, for Robinson to turn up at the Maze with Sinn Féin’s McGuinness suggests he has taken his courage in his hands and is prepared to press ahead with difficult Stormont politics – notwithstanding his continued differences with McGuinness over a range of issues, principally flags and, on the horizon, parades. There was a lot of “Martin and I” and “Peter and I”, which again underlined that they want this liaison to work.

Belligerent form

Robinson’s dismissal of Nesbitt’s criticism and others as “scaremongering garbage” also indicated a return to belligerent form.

It will be interesting to see if there will be any quid pro quo from McGuinness; for example, being more restrained in pressing those emotional and constitutional buttons that antagonise unionism.

On Tuesday at the Titanic Belfast visitor centre they insisted that any disagreements were not undermining the effectiveness of the Northern Executive.

“The issue is not so much that we find something we disagree on; the issue is that we are able to resolve it and that is what is important for Northern Ireland,” said Robinson.

Occasional rows do “no harm at all”, was McGuinness’s take on it all. “We are normal human beings. We have disagreements at times but there has never been an occasion when we have refused to speak to one another.”

So, a positive story after all the negativity: Robinson and McGuinness aptly reconcile at the conflict resolution site. But with the most difficult period of the marching season ahead, and a long list of other matters to be tackled, it still will be a challenge a day for them to keep their political powersharing vows.

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