The DUP and Sinn Féin had got at least as far as a text on a draft agreement to restore powersharing in the North, leaked papers from their talks indicate.
The Eamonn Mallie website reported on Tuesday that it has obtained a copy of what it described as a "draft agreement text" between the parties.
A number of sources have stated that the parties had agreed a compromise on the key issue of language which would have seen three acts – an Irish Language Act, an Ulster-Scots Act and a Respecting Language and Diversity Act – being introduced in a restored Assembly.
Sources told The Irish Times that the provisions of the Irish and Ulster-Scots Acts would be incorporated into the Respecting Language and Diversity Act. This would have allowed for a fudge whereby Sinn Féin could say it had a standalone Irish Act, while the DUP and other unionists could argue the Respecting Language and Diversity Act was the more significant all-embracing element.
The talks crashed last Wednesday after, senior sources said the DUP was unable to sell the Irish language element of the proposed agreement to its members. Sinn Féin insisted a deal was in the offing, while the DUP said no final deal was agreed.
Published an extract
Journalists Eamonn Mallie and Brian Rowan published an extract from the "draft agreement" which they said was from the weekend before last and had given rise to hopes that a final deal would be signed off on by the parties.
They wrote that page five of the draft refers to the three-act compromise to address the deadlock over the Irish language. However, they reported that there were square brackets in an eight-line paragraph dealing with language, culture and diversity, meaning it had not yet been agreed.
One of the key demands of the DUP was that there should be mechanisms to prevent a restored Executive being hastily collapsed by the resignation of a first minister or deputy first minister as happened 13 months ago when the late Martin McGuinness stood down.
The “draft agreement” published on the website proposed that in any future crisis the institutions would remain in place for 24 weeks, rather than one week as present, before their collapse.
In the event of a first or deputy first minister resigning the parties would have six weeks to re-elect politicians to these posts, according to the leaked paper.
The Eamonn Mallie website (eamonnmallie.com) late on Tuesday night published 13 pages of the leaked “Draft Agreement Text” which deals with the contentious issues of language and same-sex marriage and other matters such as a proposed bill of rights for Northern Ireland.
Under the Irish language proposals Irish would be recognised as an official language in the North. In addition an Irish language commissioner would be appointed to promote and facilitate use of language throughout all Northern Executive departments, local government, public bodies and arm’s lengths bodies.
The commissioner also would introduce best practice standards approved by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. The commissioner would provide annual reports to the Northern Assembly and investigate complaints against these bodies in relation to the use of the language.
The commissioner, according to the draft paper, “will consult on the development of a number of categories and standards and bring forward recommendations for approval to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister”.
“Each public body will be assessed and placed in one of the categories on the basis of set criteria such as the level of interaction with the public, number of employees and establishing need. There will be a ‘sliding scale’ of standards within categories dependent on the criteria,” it adds.
English would remain the working language of courts. Irish and other languages would be facilitated “when deemed necessary by courts”.
The draft paper states that the parties agreed that “all aspects of this agreement will be implemented in a proportionate and prudent way”.
There will be similar legislation, including the appointment of a commissioner, for Ulster Scots. There also will be official recognition for Ulster Scots.
A “central translation hub” would be established in the Department of Finance to provide Irish and Ulster Scots language translation services for the nine Executive departments, local government, public bodies and arm’s length bodies.
Assembly members would be permitted to conduct their business in the chamber through Irish and Ulster Scots.
In the paper the issue of same-sex marriage remains unresolved. The paper states that “parties recognise that each hold different mandated policy positions on the issue”.
“Parties anticipate that this issue will be fully considered by the Assembly in the form of a private member’s bill and recognise this process is ultimately one for the Assembly,” it adds.
The paper also states that the parties would agree to establish an ad hoc Assembly committee to consider the creation of a bill of rights for Northern Ireland.
The paper further states, “The parties recognise the importance of promoting equality, good relations, inclusion and mutual respect by encouraging our diverse cultural traditions.”
It adds that the parties “agree to undertaking major transformation projects in health, education, housing and justice including progressing upon the existing consensus on the reforms set out in the Bengoa report (proposals aimed at overhauling North’s health service).”
The parties also commit to providing an additional £1 billion over the lifetime of the Assembly towards improving health services.
Earlier, DUP negotiator Edwin Poots said a “fair and balanced deal” was not achieved in the talks.
“We hope to pick up the process in the future. Therefore, the DUP will not be publishing any of the talks papers as it would be an act of bad faith,” he said.
“If others wish to publish elements of the talks that’s a matter for them. Such a publication will not undermine anything that the DUP has said in public or private.”
Retrieving a deal
Meanwhile, senior DUP and Sinn Féin delegations are scheduled to meet British prime minister Theresa May separately in London today as the British and Irish governments seek to determine if there is any hope of retrieving a deal.
Sinn Féin is likely to push the British government to trigger, along with the Irish Government, the Intergovernmental Conference provided for by the Belfast Agreement, which would give Dublin an input into the affairs of the North if they continued to be administered from London.
The Sinn Féin leadership has made similar requests of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, though Ministers in Dublin are thought to be reluctant to push for this development at this stage.
Both governments prefer instead to seek a resumption of the talks, though Sinn Féin believes this to be unrealistic.