Varadkar urges DUP to ‘honour commitments’ on Irish language

DUP sources say party will force election if no significant change to legislation plans

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar at the British-Irish Council summit in Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, earlier this month. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar at the British-Irish Council summit in Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, earlier this month. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has urged the Democratic Unionist Party to “honour their agreements” on Irish language legislation for the North as Jeffrey Donaldson emerges as frontrunner to take over the party leadership.

The Fine Gael leader also said the Irish Government would go the “extra mile” to make sure the Northern Ireland protocol worked, but that it would require concessions from London.

Nominations for a successor to Edwin Poots, who resigned as DUP leader on Thursday after just weeks in the role, opened on Saturday and will close at noon on Tuesday.

The new leader is expected to be elected on Saturday. Lagan Valley MP Mr Donaldson, who was narrowly defeated in last month’s leadership contest, is widely tipped to take over.

Party sources told the Sunday Life that unless there was “significant change” in plans to introduce Irish language legislation, then the DUP would collapse the Stormont Executive and force an autumn Assembly election.

Mr Varadkar, defending the commitment to introduce an Irish Act in the cross-party New Decade, New Approach agreement, which restored powersharing in January last year, Mr Varadkar said it was “something that shouldn’t really threaten anyone”.

“It is similar to legislation already in place in Scotland and Wales, and it would be part of a wider package to recognise people who are British in Northern Ireland and people coming from a unionist perspective,” he said.

“That was agreed. It was agreed by the governments, it was agreed by all parties, and that should be honoured. People should honour their agreements.”

Mr Varadkar said the deal was not “ancient history”.

“I don’t understand how anyone, no matter what background they come from, wouldn’t honour an agreement they made only a year ago,” he told RTÉ.

First minister

Mr Poots resigned amid a party revolt after a deal with Sinn Féin, in which the British government agreed to push Irish language legislation through Westminster if it was not passed by Stormont.

The outgoing party leader also defied the wishes of the majority of its MPs and MLAs by nominating his close ally Paul Givan as Stormont’s new First Minister, to replace Arlene Foster, whose ousting has caused rancour within its ranks.

Days after being installed, Mr Givan has been told he will have to step down as First Minister when the new party leader is elected.

Sinn Féin has warned the DUP must be “faithful” to “commitments and agreements” if it is to support the party’s new first minister.

Chris Hazzard, Sinn Féin MP for South Down, said powersharing was restored “on the basis that the commitments made” would be “finally realised in legislation”.

“When people are looking in at what’s happening in the DUP, if it wasn’t so serious, it would be farcical,” he told the BBC.

“There’s no doubt that the DUP have caught themselves in a cul-de-sac all of their own making in recent years.

“I think they have been unwilling and incapable to deliver on people’s rights.

“For all the shouting about the protocol and Brexit, we have to remember it was gay conversion therapy that brought Arlene Foster down, and it was delivering on Irish language rights that brought Edwin Poots down. That’s a really sorry state of affairs.”

During the last leadership campaign Mr Donaldson vowed to quit as an MP in Westminster to return to the Assembly and take up the role of first minister.

One possibility is that he could seek to replace Mrs Foster as the MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone when she steps down, or he could wait until the next Assembly election, in which case he may appoint a caretaker first minister.

The move would also trigger a Westminster byelection in Lagan Valley, a seat held by Mr Donaldson since 1997.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood accused the DUP of “positioning themselves to manufacture another political crisis that will once again threaten our local institutions.”

“In a desperate attempt to stabilise their own party, they are recklessly prepared to destabilise devolution,” he said.

“No political party and no government should indulge this recklessness – the vast majority of the public won’t indulge it, so no one else should,” the Foyle MP added.

Protocol difficulties

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar accepted the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol arrangements had created “some practical difficulties” for business in the North.

The Tánaiste signalled that efforts were continuing to minimise checks and controls on goods crossing between Britain and the North, adding that there would be more emphasis on the advantages of the protocol.

“But that does require engagement; it requires the British government to make some concessions,” he said.

“The EU has already made a lot. Quite frankly, they haven’t been as forthcoming from the British government.”

Mr Varadkar said the protocol was a direct result of the Brexit chosen by the British government “with the support of the DUP”.

“There has to be checks and controls somewhere. Our view is it is better that they happen in two or three ports rather than on Border posts along 10 Border counties,” he added.

“It is not as if the protocol was part of some evil design by the Irish government or the European Union. This happened because [the British government] rejected the single market, they rejected the customs union, rejected the backstop, which would have been a UK-wide solution.

“That’s how we ended up with the protocol, and the people who are giving out about it now need to be a bit more honest about that.”