DUP reinstates Líofa grant as efforts to avoid election underway

Charlie Flanagan in Belfast for meetings with Northern Secretary James Brokenshire

DUP Communities Minister Paul Givan: “My decision on the Líofa Bursary Scheme was not a political decision.” Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

DUP Communities Minister Paul Givan: “My decision on the Líofa Bursary Scheme was not a political decision.” Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

 

The DUP communities minister Paul Givan has rowed back on his decision to withdraw £50,000 in funding for an Irish language bursary scheme - a move that Sinn Féin described as critical in Martin McGuinness resigning as Deputy First Minister.

As last ditch efforts continued on Thursday to see if Assembly elections can be avoided, Mr Givan issued a tweet to say that he had “now identified the necessary funding to advance this scheme”.

A number of senior Sinn Féin politicians said the announcement two days before Christmas Day by Mr Givan that he was ending the grant to the Liofa Irish language promotion organisation was “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in relation to the current political crisis.

Mr McGuinness described the decision as driven “by crass and crude bigotry”. He accused the DUP of acting “with disrespect and at times outright bigotry towards the Irish language, blocking an Irish Language Act and withdrawing funding”.

Mr Givan however insisted he has no antipathy to the Irish language. “My decision on the Liofa bursary scheme was not a political decision,” he said.

Notwithstanding this apparent DUP “olive branch” it remains problematical whether there is any real prospect of avoiding Assembly elections although the British and Irish governments continue to urge the parties to find a way out of the impasse.

On Wednesday Taoiseach Enda Kenny met Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams in Dublin and spoke to DUP leader Arlene Foster and former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness by telephone.

Mr McGuinness, who resigned as Deputy First Minister on Monday, told Mr Kenny he was willing to meet the DUP to discuss the current crisis.

Nonetheless, Sinn Féin continues to insist that it will not be nominating a replacement for Mr McGuinness as Deputy First Minister by Monday’s deadline. If it holds to that position elections will be inevitable.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan travelled to Belfast on Thursday for meetings with Mr Brokenshire and also with the DUP, Sinn Féin and the other parties to determine if there is any possibility of ending the stalemate.

There has been some movement from the DUP in recent days. Mr Givan is to restore the Líofa grant and the DUP economy Minister Simon Hamilton has also presented new plans to the Sinn Fein finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir that he claimed would reduce the projected £490 million overspend of the cash for ash scheme to “effectively zero”.

Mr O Muilleoir said that these plans would be fairly assessed by his senior officials.

Ms Foster also said that this week the DUP would announce details of a public inquiry into the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme which precipitated this crisis.

‘Humiliating climb-down’

Ms Foster refused to acquiesce to the Sinn Féin demand that she temporarily stand aside as First Minister pending preliminary findings from the investigation. With Mr McGuinness’s resignation she ceased to act as First Minister.

The Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister described Mr Givan’s decision on the Irish bursary as a “humiliating climb-down”.

“The DUP is in concession mode and this £50,000, which Mr Givan defended withdrawing on the basis that Irish already receives vastly more money than Ulster Scots just 24 hours ago, is just the start,” he said.

Writing in Thursday’s Belfast Telegraph Mr McGuinness again made clear that as well as RHI and Ms Foster’s refusal to step aside as First Minister that Sinn Féin has a long list of grievances against the DUP.

He said the DUP was “nominally engaged in power-sharing government with Sinn Féin” and that it “never fully embraced the ideals which underpin the Good Friday Agreement”.

“It played fast and loose with the joint nature of the joint Office of First and Deputy First Minister.

“The DUP acted with disrespect and at times outright bigotry towards the Irish language, blocking an Irish Language Act and withdrawing funding,” he added.

It also showed no regard for the identity, traditions and symbols of the nationalist and republican people.

“No serious attempt was made to reciprocate the initiatives around reconciliation that I and others within Sinn Fein have taken.”

Mr McGuinness also raised issues such as the Brexit, a bill of rights for Northern Ireland, and LGBT and ethnic minority rights.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said that the DUP had approached a party colleague and asked them to join in lobbying Mr Brokenshire to suspend the powersharing institutions to facilitate talks rather than call elections.

Mr Brokenshire said on Wednesday that it was highly probable elections will happen. This most likely would be in early March.