Unionists never have been happy about the idea of a peace centre on the site of the old Long Kesh/Maze prison. I remember years ago, when the late David Ervine, a man considered by most an open-minded unionist, was asked what should be done with the old prison. His immediate reply: ‘Flatten it’. Jim Allister is against it, so too is the Ulster Unionist Party and the Orange Order. If not “Flatten it” then “Forget it” and have the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society and other worthy projects sited there.
When the question is asked why the site should not include a peace centre, the answer is that this would be ‘a shrine to terrorism’. But that’s an odd answer, considering it hasn’t been built and the form it would take has not been decided.
The real problem with a peace centre is that it would inevitably include the story of Long Kesh/The Maze. No matter what way they’re played, the stories of the blanket protest, the hunger strikes, the mass escape - all these make the incarcerated republicans look very much like a daring and resilient group - an army, even - rather than the common criminals that unionism chooses to think of them as. Republicans can well afford to agree to simply stick to the facts in telling the story of Long Kesh/the Maze, because the facts alone, without any shrine-shine, would make them look good. No wonder so many unionists are agin it.
A final point: Peter Robinson did a very un-Protestant thing when he wrote his letter-from-America: he went back on his word. Traditionally, Protestants have prided themselves on being blunt, unambiguous people. For them no mixing of light with darkness, of truth with lies. A man’s word was his bond and that’s that. That’s not to say that Catholics are less dependable, that they’ll engage in obfuscation and Jesuitical manipulation of words, but you know where you stand with the Protestant. So when the top man in the DUP gave his word that he’d go along with the Maze/Long Kesh peace centre, to the point where a design for the building and its exact location had been completed, and then went back on that word, using any excuse he could lay hands on, he wasn’t just putting millions of EU money at risk. He was shattering the proudest boast of the Ulster Protestant: my word is my bond.
He was also making it very hard for republicans and nationalists to believe any future commitment he may make. The scalded cat avoids the hot stove. Once scalded, it even avoids cold stoves.