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Last Updated: Friday, 22 June 2007, 18:33 GMT 19:33 UK
NI stadium saga could run and run
Gareth Gordon
By Gareth Gordon
BBC NI political correspondent

Soccer, GAA and rugby
The Maze stadium is designed for soccer, GAA and rugby

Whoever warned that politics and sport don't mix may find few arguments in DUP headquarters.

Sharing power with Sinn Fein is starting to look like a breeze compared to the question of sharing sporting codes at a stadium on the site of the old Maze prison.

Shoe-horning gaelic games, soccer and rugby into one stadium is difficult enough. But it must also have the backing of four political parties, one of which Sinn Fein, demands as its price, retention of part of the old prison as an international centre for conflict transformation - or in unionist speak "a terrorist shrine".

That wasn't such a great problem when direct rulers were calling the shots but increasingly it appears to be a problem for the DUP who have inherited a headache of the NIO's making.

And now a party which prides itself on keeping its differences internal is increasingly and very publicly showing the cracks.

Minister for fun

At the centre of this is Edwin Poots, minister of culture, arts and leisure. His unofficial title of minister for fun looks less appropriate by the day.

He already came into the job with "baggage" in that as a Lagan Valley MLA he was one of the main political advocates of the Maze site.

Once in office he said he would look again at all the options and met many of the interested groups, like the Northern Ireland soccer fans and those who instead of the Maze want to build a stadium in Belfast.

But his decision this week to set a nine-day deadline, accusing the Maze opponents of "bombast and bluster", lit the blue touch paper.

His party colleague, the East Antrim MP and Belfast city councillor Sammy Wilson, called the move "ludicrous", demanded he reconsider, and launched a stinging attack on "the terror museum".

The H-blocks
Plans for the Maze site include retaining one of the H-blocks

But more damaging still was the follow up attack from Enterprise Minister Nigel Dodds which brings the row right inside the Executive.

Nigel Dodds spoke out in a personal capacity in the knowledge that his party leader Ian Paisley - the first minister - has at last broken his silence on the row by firmly ruling out Belfast's Ormeau Park as a stadium site.

It is widely assumed Dr Paisley favours the Maze - although he's never publicly said so.

Ultimately it will be a decision for the office of the first and deputy first minister which puts the first minister at the heart of the decision making process.

But Finance Minister Peter Robinson must believe the Maze makes financial sense before he signs off on it... and even as his party leader was ruling out Ormeau Park he very publicly told journalists that he hadn't even had sight of a business plan for any of the proposed schemes - Maze included.

Official

Still the official line is that if the figures add up the Maze will go ahead.

But Peter Robinson is known to be a man who values party unity. He and others could deduce that the Maze is more trouble than is worth.

One MLA told me this week that he estimated 20 of the party's 36 assembly members were opposed to the Maze.

That's hard to confirm, but it's getting more and more difficult to find unionist politicians, of any hue, who publicly back the prison plan.

The assembly's DCAL committee, which scrutinises Edwin Poots' work, has three DUP members, Lord Browne, Jim Shannon and Nelson McCausland, all of whom favour a Belfast site, as do the Ulster Unionist committee members David McNarry and Ken Robinson.

Plans for the Maze prison site
How the Maze site would look if it goes ahead

One senior DUP source says the Maze shows all the signs of becoming "a complete disaster."

That of course does not mean it won't happen - though the question marks must be getting bigger.

Sinn Fein have urged Nigel Dodds to "move on", but they appear to have much less to lose.

Already the party has made it clear that the conflict transformation centre must have equal status with the stadium.

Denying the 'shrine' claims they also know that H6 and the prison hospital, where the hunger strikers died, have been placed under a preservation order by the Environment and Heritage Service which applies whether the stadium is built or not.

Any decision inside the executive must have cross-community support and Sinn Fein has made it clear it's the Maze or nowhere - which appears to rule out Belfast.

In sporting terms, the two parties could end up cancelling each other out. That being the case what price the DUP tightening up its defences; the 'national stadium' being abandoned; and money found instead to tart up Windsor Park?




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