Sinn Féin downplays war of words as Stormont talks turn ‘tetchy’

Selling an Irish language act is proving difficult for the DUP, according to sources

Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy (left) and Gerry Kelly speaking to the media in the great hall of Stormont Parliament buildings in Belfast  on Monday. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy (left) and Gerry Kelly speaking to the media in the great hall of Stormont Parliament buildings in Belfast on Monday. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Sinn Féin has played down suggestions that relations between Northern Ireland party leaders were acrimonious as negotiations continued on Monday to strike a deal to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly.

As the British and Irish governments seek to convince the parties to sign up to a deal before Monday’s deadline, a number of sources said the mood of the talks was “tetchy” as the parties tried to resolve final issues.

The main issues of contention, according to political sources, were the Sinn Féin demand for an Irish language act and proposed amendments to the petition of concern - the mechanism whereby, with 30 signatories, motions can be vetoed in the Assembly, even if they have majority support.

Exchanges between the DUP and Sinn Féin on the Irish language over recent days reflected the quarrelsome nature of the current negotiations.

On Friday the Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said that “clearly” there would be an Irish language Act in any agreement.

On Sunday DUP Assembly member Gregory Campbell said his party would not accept any attempt to “elevate (Irish) above all other minority languages”.

On Monday on BBC Radio Ulster’s lunchtime Talkback programme, Sammy Wilson of the DUP said his party would “not be pressurised” on the Irish language “but at the same time we are not going to drag our heels, because we want to get the thing sorted out as quickly as possible”.

Mr Wilson said the DUP was anxious to reach an overall agreement but only would sign up to one that was “fair and sustainable”.

Selling an Irish language act, even if it is incorporated into general overarching cultural legislation, is proving difficult for the DUP, according to a number of sources.

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister in an effort to reinforce the pressure on the DUP went to Stormont on Monday to insist that “no unionist should be conceding anything” in regard to the Irish language.

He said the Irish language sector, including at schools level, already was “over feted”.

Mr Allister added, “The whole agenda of an Irish language Act has nothing to do with linguistics. It has everything to do with politics, and the politics of a weaponised demand for an Irish language act is about de-Britishising Northern Ireland, making it a more uncomfortable place for unionists in their own land.”

‘Ebb and flow’

Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator Conor Murphy downplayed the reports of serious cross-party arguments. “These things ebb and flow. We have good days and we have days where things are a bit more tetchy. I wouldn’t get overly worried about it,” he said.

Of Monday’s negotiations Mr Murphy said: “It wasn’t necessarily a bad day. I would not get carried away by all of these reports. On a day when maybe not much else is happening people tend to seize on the minutiae of these things. What is important is the shape of an agreement, and getting an agreement, and it should be done sooner rather than later.”

He said that if there was no deal by Monday Northern Secretary Julian Smith should press ahead with his threat to call Assembly elections.

Meanwhile, Mr Smith flew to London from Belfast on Monday afternoon to brief British prime minister Boris Johnson on the chances of a deal being struck.

British sources said Mr Smith updated “the prime minister on the talks and highlighted the consequences of failure”.

In the absence of a breakthrough, the British and Irish governments remain on course this week to publish their best read of what would constitute a deal to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said the plan was to publish the text of a potential agreement this week. British government sources on Monday confirmed that that remained the position of the two governments.

“The text is likely to be tabled later this week,” said a senior London source.

Sources said that the parties have reached agreement “on what the Executive will prioritise if and when it returns”.

And ahead of a planned nurses strike on Wednesday one source said that “crucially there is agreement to prioritise the health pay crisis”.