Are the cracks starting to emerge in Peter Robinson’s iron grip?
Maze reversal will seriously undermine the DUP leader’s authority and leave Sinn Fein wondering if it can trust him, writes political editor Liam Clarke
Now we know the reason for the long silence from Peter Robinson. While the First Minister refused interviews and sat tight through recent violence, he was in the DUP's Dundela Avenue headquarters preparing the political bombshell which was lobbed at us from the safe distance of Florida.
The decision to shelve the Maze peace centre will win him no friends and little respect amongst other politicians. Both Sinn Fein and the unionists who pressured him to change direction scent weakness.
Mr Robinson is a long way since the 2011 election when he talked about bringing Catholics into the DUP and his working relationship with Martin McGuinness seemed unshakeable.
Now the two men haven't appeared together in weeks. Relations between their two parties are at the lowest point since they entered coalition. A breakdown of their partnership no longer seems unthinkable.
Is this all part of some game plan? In the 11-page letter from America defending his volte-face, Mr Robinson hints that he was really establishing the right conditions for the site to proceed.
“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” he said.
He went on: “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 other words, he is kicking the whole issue into the long grass, at least until after the talks chaired by Richard Haass which are due to run from September till the end of December. They will deal with flags, parading and the legacy of the past.
Mr Robinson writes: “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”.
This means that the Maze site will be the last issue to be addressed after everything else is solved and agreed.
Yet, until now it had seemed sorted. As recently as March Health Minister Edwin Poots announced that the DUP had made a “corporate decision” to get behind the Maze site, which would include a peace building centre. In April, Mr Robinson was publicly at one with Mr McGuinness on the issue.
“When people talk about a shrine to terrorism, who has actually asked that a shrine to terrorism be constructed at the Maze? Nobody. Martin hasn't. Martin has made it very clear that he doesn't want a shrine to terrorism. He wants a shrine to peace,” the DUP leader said of his Sinn Fein colleague.
Mr Robinson used an article in the Belfast Telegraph in April to denounce unionist critics of the Maze shrine as opportunists. “Let me be clear: there will be no shrine at the site, or at the peace centre. And while wild assertions of scaremongering might buy publicity for political opponents, it will be short-lived. As the site is developed in the fashion intended, the scurrilous and dishonest claims will be exposed. It is a disgrace that victims should be subjected to this anxiety,” he stormed.
Jimmy Spratt, the South Belfast DUP MLA, went further, suggesting that opponents of the plan were “nutters”, but later apologised. The Maze Development Corporation website features a visionary soundbite from Mr Robinson — “out of the prison site that in the past was a manifestation of individual, organisational and even societal failure, we want to achieve something that demonstrates our desire to build a brighter, better and shared future for all.”
All the signs are that, although he will try to play it to his advantage in the Haass talks, Mr Robinson has had his feet held to the fire and has acted to appease critics.
The Orange Order is increasingly influential in DUP circles. This year it called for the halting of the Maze project from nearly all its Twelfth platforms. The party has backed the Order on every marching dispute. In North Belfast Nigel Dodds, its MP, as well as Nelson McCausland and William Humphrey, are Orangemen who have been prominent in the protests at Woodvale.
There will be elections every year for the next three years and members of the Order have a reputation for voting in a higher proportion than the rest of the population. Mr Robinson also says that victims groups have been hurt by Sinn Fein decisions like the one to proceed with a republican parade in Castlederg
Smaller unionist parties, both the TUV and UUP, saw the Maze issue as one on which the DUP was vulnerable and an area in which they could make inroads into the DUP support base.
So the DUP leader tacked and changed course in response to all this. Hardliners within the party will now lose their fear of him, and push for a further toughening in the DUP position. Rival unionist parties have seen cracks appearing in his leadership and want to drive wedges into them. Sinn Fein denounces his decision as “weak” and “cowardly” and is starting to wonder whether it can trust his word.
These are difficult waters to navigate. Mr Robinson is between a rock and a hard place with an election looming. He isn't saying much — even his Twitter stream has been silent all month — but he looks increasingly like a tribal and sectional leader, buffeted by competing factions, rather than the First Minster for the whole community he set out to be.
He has a reputation for performing well under pressure and manoeuvring effectively in tight spaces. These abilities will be tested to the full when he returns next month.