Ringland and McCrea clash over Maze reconciliation centre

NI21 leader accuses Northern Ireland Conservatives of trying to make themselves relevant

The continuing controversy over the DUP's decision to withdraw support for a peace and reconciliation centre at the Maze prison site has triggered a bitter exchange between former Irish rugby international Trevor Ringland and the leader of NI21 Basil McCrea.

Mr Ringland, co-chairman of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland, yesterday accused Mr McCrea of coming close to allowing the IRA to justify its campaign of violence.

Mr McCrea, who with fellow MLA John McCallister formed the broadly liberal pro-union NI21 party earlier this year, rejected this allegation, adding, "This is just about the Conservative Party trying to make itself relevant."

Support abandoned
Mr Ringland made his comments based on a recent blog by Lagan Valley Assembly member Mr McCrea, and by a number of NI21 statements deploring the decision by DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson to abandon support for the proposed Maze reconciliation centre.

Mr Robinson earlier this month withdrew support for the project in the face of criticism from the Ulster Unionist Party, the Traditional Unionist Voice party and unionist victims' groups, and also because of anxiety over the centre within his own party.


His decision was viewed as a U-turn as in April this year, in the company of Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, he fully endorsed the development and insisted it would not be a “shire to terrorism”, as depicted by some unionists.

Mr McGuinness accused the DUP of “continually feeding the insatiable appetite of those who see life through a red, white and blue prism”.

The row, which is likely to be reactivated when the Northern Executive returns to full working mode after the summer, has raised questions about plans for the overall £300 million redevelopment of the 347-acre Maze-Long Kesh site which is expected to create 5,000 permanent and 2,000 construction jobs.

Mr McCrea, who supported both the overall development and the reconciliation centre, was accused yesterday by Mr Ringland of coming "perilously close" to appearing as an "apologist for the IRA".

'Something to sell'
"To say that republicans 'need something to sell' and to cite the Maze development, is to come very close to implying that we need to allow people involved in paramilitarism to celebrate and justify their violent past," Mr Ringland said.

"David Trimble (former UUP leader) was right when he said that just because you have a past doesn't mean that you can't have a future, but we must be very clear that people who acted outside the law during the Troubles were wrong."

Mr McCrea emphatically rejected his comments.

“It is disappointing that the Conservative Party has chosen to selectively quote from a blog about compromising after conflict,” he said. “For the record terrorism is morally repugnant, counterproductive and leaves a legacy that will not be erased for many years.”

“NI21 does not support the building of a shrine anywhere, let alone at the Maze. But we were given assurances by Peter Robinson that the peace and reconciliation centre would be no such thing.

“It is clear that our society needs some form of reconciliation and an agreed way forward or we risk falling back into the tragedies of the past.”

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times