Shot down... Charity forced to cancel airshow event after being caught up in ongoing political dogfight between Sinn Fein and DUP
The dysfunctional nature of Stormont has hit a new low after an aviation charity fundraiser became the casualty of bitter relations between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
Almost 10 months after it applied to hold a two-day event at the site of the former Maze Prison, the Ulster Aviation Society (UAS) is still waiting for a response from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. It has now been forced to cancel the event after repeated attempts to get an answer to its application were ignored.
As the education charity, staffed by volunteers, voiced its "disgust" over the stalemate, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was staying quiet on his decision to refuse to give it the go-ahead.
And future events at the former Maze site have now been plunged into doubt after Sinn Fein pulled the plug on the UAS open days due to have been held at the end of this month.
Sinn Fein also made it clear there would be no approval for similar events until the DUP agreed to press ahead with development of the site.
Its ban, however, does not apply to the Royal Ulster Agricultural Show, which shifted from the King's Hall at Balmoral two years ago, or to another event already pencilled in, Truckfest Ireland, the weekend after next.
UAS's headquarters are at the site of the former Maze Prison. Its collection of aviation history is housed in a large hangar there.
It said it waited months for approval which never came – and Mr McGuinness and First Minister Peter Robinson's department did not even reply to correspondence, resulting in the cancellation. Society chairman Ray Burrows said: "The whole UAS committee is devastated and at a loss to understand why permission has been withheld this year, considering this year's event was being planned on the back of very successful open day events held over previous years.
"It was shaping up to be our biggest and best yet. We held off taking this decision as long as possible, but there obviously comes a time when it is impossible to continue. Sadly, we have reached that point in time."
The one-day event last year brought 5,000 enthusiasts and the UAS hoped the expanded event could bring in a profit margin of £15,000.
The DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson said the UAS was being victimised by Sinn Fein, which was attempting to use the event as "leverage".
The MP, in whose Lagan Valley constituency the event would have taken place, argued: "It is childish and petty for Sinn Fein to damage the work of the Ulster Aviation Society because a small republican clique demand that certain buildings take priority over everything else on the site."
Mr Donaldson said consensus on a peace centre could not be reached, but the potential for 5,000 jobs, economic development, and UAS using the site should still proceed.
There was no comment from Mr McGuinness but former Sinn Fein Executive minister Caitríona Ruane argued: "There was an agreement on the development and use of the entire site... backed by £18m in European funding.
"At the behest of negative voices within the DUP, Peter Robinson then reneged on this agreement. The DUP cannot cherry-pick the parts of an agreement which they support and block the elements they have difficulty with. That is not how negotiations work.
"(We are) willing to agree that the UAS can proceed as requested if access to the prison buildings is reinstated. We can then come back to discuss the wider issues around the full development of the site."
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, who along with Traditional Unionist Voice and Ukip launched a public petition against the Maze project, said it was an "absolute disgrace" that the UAS should suffer "because of Sinn Fein bloody-mindedness".
Alliance's Trevor Lunn MLA said: "The claim by Sinn Fein that they have blocked this event as a result of the DUP's veto of the Conflict Resolution Centre is not a valid excuse. It is just an example of petty politics."
And the TUV leader Jim Allister argued: "This episode for many underscores the unpalatable truth that Sinn Fein is not in the Stormont Executive to give Northern Ireland good government, hence their preparedness to even use an aviation show as leverage to demand access to their shrine buildings at the Maze."
OFMDFM yesterday declined to explain why it failed to respond to the UAS application, but later said in a statement there was "no agreement" on the Maze/Long Kesh site.
It was recently revealed the office had refused to answer 56 questions from Mr Allister – including one dating back almost three years.
He said he now intended to submit every unanswered query to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness's office as Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.
He also intends to submit another 47 questions which were ignored by other Stormont departments using the FoI Act.
It comes after a watchdog dismissed an argument from OFMDFM that it would "undermine" the Assembly if it answered questions in public which it had ignored through the official Stormont channels.
The Information Commissioner's ruling clears the way for MLAs to pursue questions ignored by the Assembly using FoI legislation.
Timeline: How the events unfolded
DUP and Sinn Fein announce the Maze Peace Centre as part of a package including a new single |Victims Commissioner and an external review of the Executive’s Press and information service.
Ulster Unionists, Jim Allister of Traditional Unionist Voice and Ukip’s David McNarry launched a petition calling for the prison buildings at the Maze site to be delisted and demolished.
August 13 2013
Peter Robinson shifts from broad support for the Maze project to insisting it is put on hold.
October 11 2013
Ulster Aviation Society sends event application form to Maze/Long Kesh Development body, an arm’s-length body of OFMDFM.
October 14 2013
Development body replies noting the planned dates — two days rather than the previous one.
June 27 2014
Aviation Society chairman Ray Burrows speaks privately to Sinn Fein official at American Consulate event.
July 1 2014
Mr Burrows sends “begging” letters to both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness by registered post
July 3 2014
Reply is received from OFMDFM correspondence secretary saying letters are being “looked at”.
August 4 2014
Ulster Aviation Society announces it’s been forced to cancel its two-day event after receiving no decision on its application.