Stormont talks deadlocked over Irish language Act

Irish, British Ministers trying to persuade DUP and Sinn Féin to make deal by 4pm deadline

Negotiations to salvage powersharing in Northern Ireland continue as parties mount a last-ditch effort to strike a deal.

 

Intensive efforts were continuing at Stormont late on Wednesday night to break the political deadlock between Sinn Féin and the DUP ahead of Thursday’s 4pm deadline for an agreement to reinstate the Northern Executive and Assembly.

There was a consensus that resolving the opposing positions held by the parties on an Irish language Act would be key to the restoration of the Northern Ireland powersharing institutions.

Sinn Féin, with the support of the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, who is at the talks, is calling for a stand-alone Irish language Act, while the DUP is seeking a composite cultural Act that would also cover the issue of Ulster Scots.

If the parties fail to reach a deal, Northern Secretary James Brokenshire must this afternoon decide whether to call fresh Assembly elections, introduce direct rule from Westminster or extend the talks process in the hope a deal can be done with the assistance of additional time.

Distance

The Assembly is scheduled to sit at noon today to elect a new first minister and deputy first minister and a team of Executive ministers. Such was the distance between Sinn Féin and the DUP on the Irish language on Wednesday night that it seemed unlikely the sitting would go ahead.

The DUP took exception to Mr Coveney expressing support for an Irish language Act.

Nationalist talks sources, however, said the demand for legislation on Irish was driven by more than love for the language, but was a requirement to illustrate that the “DUP has bought into the respect agenda”.

“It is about more than an Irish language Act, it is about an Irish respect act,” said one senior SDLP negotiator.

‘Don’t feed the crocodiles’

This related to disparaging “don’t feed the crocodiles” remarks which DUP leader Arlene Foster made during the Assembly election campaign earlier this year in relation to an Irish language Act.

Many nationalists viewed her comments as being an attack not just on the Irish language, but on the very notion of Irishness.

The comments so annoyed nationalists that they prompted a surge in support and votes for Sinn Féin, resulting in the pary coming just one seat short of the DUP in March’s Assembly election. The DUP previously had 10 more seats.

‘Greater priority’

DUP negotiator Edwin Poots said issues such as education and health were of “greater priority” than languages.

“Sinn Féin have identified language as their highest priority. We want to work with them to try to find a way through,” he said.

Sources said efforts were continuing late on Wednesday night to find some “inventive” way of breaking this logjam over language.

Sinn Féin and the SDLP sources said they had no objections to legislation on Ulster Scots but that there must be a free-standing Irish language Act.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann said his party opposed a separate Act for Irish and would not provide “cover” for the DUP if it signed up to such an Act.

“If the DUP come to an agreement with Sinn Féin on an Irish language Act then that is between the DUP and Sinn Féin,” he said.