The British government has offered to force through Irish language legislation for the North in a move that could end an impasse threatening the future of the power-sharing Stormont Executive, Sinn Féin has signalled.
Conor Murphy, the North’s Minister for Finance, said his party asked London on Monday night to move legislation through Westminster that could allow it to nominate a deputy First Minister.
The DUP and Sinn Féin have until the start of next week to nominate a first minister and deputy first minister to avoid a collapse of the Stormont administration and election after the resignation of former first minister Arlene Foster on Monday.
DUP Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan was expected to take her position but Sinn Féin, whose support is needed for his appointment to the joint office, won’t nominate a deputy first minister unless there is a commitment to implement Irish language legislation by next spring.
Mr Murphy said the British Government “did make an offer to us a number of weeks back” to push legislation through Westminster, as it did for marriage equality and reproductive rights when “the DUP dragged their heals on those matters”.
“We said to them at that stage that we wanted, having been agreed to and committed to by all the parties, this delivered in the Assembly as it should have been,” Mr Murphy told RTÉ radio.
“But clearly from our engagement with the new DUP leadership and Edwin Poots in particular over the last week or so... it was very clear within a week’s dialogue that they had no intention of honouring that commitment.
‘Rights need to be delivered’
“In those circumstances, the government that has jurisdiction has responsibility under the Good Friday Agreement on delivering on rights issues, so we went back to the British government last night and said ‘okay, you have offered to do it this way, we have exhausted discussions with the DUP, trying to get them to honour commitments made last January, these rights need to be delivered’.”
The commitment to Irish language legislation was agreed initially in the St Andrew’s Agreement, 16 years ago, and was then restated in the New Decade, New Approach deal in January last year, which restored Stormont power-sharing.
“They need to go ahead and move on this now,” said Mr Murphy.
Asked if a move by the British government would clear the way for Sinn Féin to nominate a deputy first minister, Mr Murphy said: “If the language legislation is done and done in that manner, then I think it does allow us to move ahead and nominate.”
But he warned power sharing is “based on good faith” and “where one party to that decides they don’t need to honour those agreements then that places a huge jeopardy in relation to power sharing arrangements”.
On Monday, Mr Poots said his party “cannot be in a circumstance where we have pre-conditions set for the selection of our first minister. . . I’m not setting pre-conditions to the selection of Sinn Féin’s deputy first minister”.
Sinn Féin would be putting “our very peace at risk as a consequence of that action,” he said.