The demise of the shrine

So Peter Robinson has now effectively vetoed the Maze “shrine.” Amid all the complaints regarding this from republicans the real question might be Why did he take so long to do it? The reality is that very few unionists have ever supported the concept. A few loyalist terrorist ex prisoners might have had an interest due to their self interest in reinventing their sectarian murder campaign as one by “the fighting men” to quote Gusty Spence.

Very few unionists, however, would have had the slightest interest in attending the place. Compared to almost any other visitor attractions available to unionists the shrine / peace centre / call it what you will simply would not have been attractive. The idea of harassed Ulster Prod parents (I am one) thinking of ways to entertain their children for a day out: The Zoo, The Folk and Transport Museum, Ulster American Folk Park, Carrickfergus Castle, Enniskillen Castle, Marble Arch Caves, etc. etc. The list in Northern Ireland is actually quite long. Compared to all those the Maze Interpretative Centre er… Had the thing ever got off the ground I have no doubt attempts would have been made to get school groups to go and I am equally certain that there would have been remarkably few signatures on the parental permission slips sent home. As an aside actually there is an interesting set of exhibits at the Maze site: those of the Ulster Aviation Society. The society have a Buccaneer which is in actual fact a plane and also an ekranoplan ( here is a cool video of a big Russian ekranoplan)– sorry I digress from an aside into total irrelevance.

The UUP, TUV, many in the victims sector, the few churchmen who have spoken on the issue, the Orange Order, have all spoken against the Maze centre. Against that, the full weight of most of unionist political and civic society, the DUP eventually had to do something.

The TUV and UUP will of course describe this as a U turn and a victory for them (and indeed it may well be). The DUP have described this decision by them as in part a reaction to Sinn Fein’s recent behaviour over the Castlederg “Tyrone Volunteers” parade (rerouted from Galbally where it used to be held). Again there may be a bit of truth in this.

Sinn Fein and others’ complaint against the DUP and Peter Robinson in particular has been against their and his “lack of leadership” in failing to make the case, take the Maze project forward, and persuade the unionist population of its merits.

In a way Sinn Fein’s analysis is highly accurate though their making it demonstrates how different the unionist community is from the nationalist / republican community and Sinn Fein (and some letsgetalongerists) lack of appreciation of this.

Peter Robinson has been the undisputed leader of unionism for a few years now; lauded for his leadership. However, it needs to be remembered that as recently as the last Westminster election Robinson looked fatally wounded and at the last European election the DUP looked in just as precarious position.

After the European election one of the allegations levelled against them was of arrogance – certainly overconfidence (the same was levelled at Robinson personally before Irisgate). They had moved into coalition with Sinn Fein much more quickly than many in their support base were willing to accept. By so doing they had disobeyed Jim Molyneaux’s cardinal rule for unionist leaders that they must not get so far ahead of their troops that those troops are no longer following.

The issue of the Maze shrine was one in which the DUP were too far ahead of their own supporters. Furthermore in a number of the utterances of the DUP there were signs of a worrying return of the arrogance: nowhere better illustrated than Jimmy Spratt describing the Maze’s opponents as “nutters” and Jeffrey Donaldson’s attacks on the UUP. This looked worryingly like a return to the narrative of arrogance: the only one which has substantially damaged the DUP since they became lead unionist party and one which they have made strenuous attempts to throw off.

What is described by arrogance is to an extent trying to lead the unionist community to places it does not want to go: something Sinn Fein (and others) describe as leadership and something they (Sinn Fein) seem to feel that the DUP fail to do. This analysis fails, however, to understand the fundamentally different nature of the relationship between the DUP and its constituency as compared to Sinn Fein and its constituency.

The contrast between the position of Sinn Fein in their community and the DUP in theirs’ is marked. The Orange Order may contain many DUP members but also has many leading members from the other unionist parties (and none) and is more than happy to criticise the actions of the DUP. The main Protestant churches leaderships are in the main apathetic or even hostile to the DUP. The smaller churches may be somewhat more supportive but they are smaller and many contain much pro TUV (and elsewhere pro Alliance) or anti all politics sentiments. The DUP is simply not a movement in the way the republican movement is and unionist civic society has many more unrelated, competing and even antagonistic power bases than the nationalist community.

Absolutely none of these groups social civic or political is enthusiastic about the shrine and most are actively antagonistic towards it. There will be practically no individuals within broader unionism who are actively in favour of the centre.

In pure political terms the DUP also have a greater and generally more potent range of political forces ranged against them. Despite the UUP’s multiple travails and despite its lack of MPs it probably represents a more potent and broader based political opposition to the DUP than the SDLP does to Sinn Fein. Under Nesbitt it may not be making major inroads but is certainly holding its own and may even be seeing some growth in support. Meanwhile Alliance also attracts significant soft unionist support to a much greater extent than it will ever attract soft nationalist let alone republican support.

Next there are the assorted political mavericks ranged against the DUP: the NI Tories and their politically clueless spokesperson Trevor Ringland may not keep Robinson awake at night but there is also Sylvia Hermon against whom the DUP did not stand last time (they had far too much sense to invite that defeat). There is also NI21 which whilst it may well achieve very little remains a consideration for the DUP.

To the harder line side of the DUP there is the TUV which still refuses to die mainly due to Jim Allister’s personal qualities along with the simple fact that there remains a significant cohort of unionist voters who are far from happy with the whole process.

When the DUP try to ignore or ride roughshod over the views of the unionist community there are simply too many potential opponents ranged against them who can pick up votes. The narrative the DUP used to devastating effect to defeat their opponents last time was that of moving Northern Ireland forward. The idea of a centre at the Maze harking back to the past especially that of the Hunger Strikers is objectionable to unionists and simply cannot be made to fit into any moving forward analysis that could conceivably resonate with unionists.

The issues which have probably brought the problem to a head and forced Robinson’s hand (and made it easier to justify) have been Sinn Fein’s actions over the Union Flag at City Hall and the current parades shenanigans. It is a bit unfair to criticise republicans for trying to end the flying of the Union Flag (that is the sort of thing republicans, being republicans, are meant to do). However, their actions in an unholy alliance with Alliance who wanted to “smoke out” the DUP’s unionism to counter Robinson’s pitch to moderate Prods and the Catholic unionist unicorns, have antagonised unionists and the DUP. This has made things like the shrine an issue which the DUP became unwilling to expend further political capital over.

Republicans will no doubt be very annoyed regarding the halting of the shrine (and I doubt Robinson is using this merely as a bargaining chip for the Haas negotiations) but the simple fact is that powerful as the DUP is (more powerful than Sinn Fein) their power within their community is much more conditional than that of Sinn Fein’s in theirs. As such having weakened (a little) and annoyed the DUP (a lot) it is relatively unsurprising that the DUP will fight back by strengthening their own position within unionism and in the process blocking something Sinn Fein want. Of course attacking unionists is part of Sinn Fein’s job but recently it seems to have become a bit too fond of that, using it as a cloak to cover its own relative impotence. When Sinn Fein look around at alternatives in the loveless marriage of Stormont they might be well advised to antagonise their partners and especially Peter Robinson their partner in chief a little less if they want to get some of what they want. They also need to understand the conditionality of the DUP’s pre-eminence in the unionist community, remembering that any attempt to damage the DUP and so make Sinn Fein the largest party would be very likely to result in some form of pan unionist preventative strategy.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.