Unionists have ‘nothing to fear from Irish language’, says DUP leader

Arlene Foster links return of Stormont to movement on language and culture issues

The DUP leader Arlene Foster has proposed that the Northern Executive be restored immediately based on a commitment that language and culture issues would be addressed within a time-limited period.

Ms Foster, in a keynote speech to her party's executive on Thursday night, attempted to break the particular deadlock over Sinn Féin demands for a standalone Irish language act that has been the main impediment to reinstating Stormont.

"We have nothing to fear from the Irish language nor is it any threat to the union," she told the DUP executive in the Ramada Hotel in south Belfast. She added however that she would not accept "one-sided" demands on the Irish language.

Ms Foster said it was clear that “another prolonged talks process” would be “little short of a waste of time unless there is some new thinking”.


"I am proposing that we restore an Executive immediately. Put Ministers back into posts so that decisions can be made and that Northern Ireland can have a government again," she said.

And seeking to deal with the language issue Ms Foster said: “But we also agree to bring forward legislation to address culture and language issues in Northern Ireland within a time-limited period to be agreed.

“If we fail to do that in a way that commands cross-community support then the Executive would cease to exist.”

Ms Foster said she made the proposal in “good faith with Northern Ireland and its people’s best interest at heart”.

Failure to resolve issues such as the Irish language, same-sex marriage and dealing with the past have been holding up a return of Stormont with nationalist-unionist divisions over the proposed Irish language act the biggest obstacle to a deal.

Ms Foster praised the Irish language groups she met over recent months as she tried to mend fences with that lobby following the controversy caused by her use of the word “crocodiles” to describe Sinn Féin and her insistence she would never accede to an Irish language act.

She said the DUP had “previously supported practical measures for the Irish language and we will do so again if we can reach a wider agreement on these matters”.

“However what we cannot and will not do is simply agree to one-sided demands. I have also heard from those within the unionist community who hear others speaking about respect, while at the same time they engage in a campaign to denigrate and demonise any and all aspects of our British identity in Northern Ireland or insult the Ulster-Scots community. That is not acceptable.”

Ms Foster accused Sinn Féin of building a “barrier to the return of Stormont” and questioned whether the party was “serious about wanting to see an early return of Stormont”.

“The talks earlier in the year were characterised by a sense that everyone must move to facilitate Sinn Féin demands. If we are to have an agreement then there will need to be a willingness on all sides to reach out in order to secure a durable outcome,” she said.

“I believe a new vision and new commitment on identities is needed. We must establish a new cultural deal to provide a comprehensive and long-term approach to the sensitive issue of identity,” added the DUP leader.

Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill, responding to the speech, said her party was “entirely committed to making the political institutions work for all citizens”.

But she accused the DUP of failing to honour agreements and on the proposal to reinstate the Executive based on a time-limited pledge to deal with the language issue Ms O’Neill said, “Establishing an Executive that may collapse after a matter of months on the same issues will only fail all our people.

“Let’s agree to quickly conclude talks on implementation and rights, that is the only way to build a sustainable Executive that will last.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said, “Arlene Foster has missed an opportunity to do the right thing and show real leadership. If this is a signal towards change of position from the DUP on a standalone Irish Language Act then we welcome that, but there is nothing explicit in these remarks to confirm that yet.”

The British and Irish governments will be carefully analysing Ms Foster’s speech and the Sinn Féin response to determine if the DUP and Sinn Féin are serious about restoring Stormont and whether political negotiations should resume, possibly next week.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times