Belfast Telegraph

Brokenshire to meet parties as DUP tells SF ‘our offer still stands’

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP is appealing to Sinn Fein to rethink its rejection of Arlene Foster's Irish language proposal as the parties today meet the Secretary of State for talks to save Stormont.

While the Irish government welcomed Mrs Foster's move and said it warranted serious consideration, Sinn Fein dismissed it as an old offer which wouldn't break the political deadlock.

However, the DUP last night said its offer still stood and urged republicans to reconsider.

Party negotiator Edwin Poots warned that Northern Ireland couldn't continue indefinitely without government.

He said: "Arlene Foster announced a common sense way to conduct the negotiations in parallel with the restoration of government.

"This was prematurely rejected. We made the proposal in good faith and will continue to enter all talks without any red lines. Northern Ireland can't continue with no elected government."

While the DUP's tone was notably conciliatory, Stormont sources held out little hope of success for the talks and said Mrs Foster's party and Sinn Fein were both "just positioning themselves to avoid shouldering the blame for failure to reach a deal".

Secretary of State James Brokenshire will hold separate meetings with all the main parties today and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney is due in Belfast tomorrow.

Mr Poots insisted his party was committed to restoring the power-sharing executive.

"The DUP is a devolutionist party and wants to see local ministers making local decisions," he said.

"The absence of an executive is inhibiting progress in health, education, investment and infrastructure."

UUP leader Robin Swann last night said innovative thinking was required if the talks failed. "We have been through this all before and it's time for the Secretary of State to start looking at alternatives," he stated.

"If the DUP and Sinn Fein can't get their act together to re-establish Stormont as we knew it, then James Brokenshire must consider setting up an alternative mechanism which would allow those parties and politicians who want to do business the chance to get on with it."

Last week, Mrs Foster pledged to legislate for the Irish language within a set period if power-sharing was restored. She described it as "a common sense solution" and warned that, without a deal, direct rule loomed. "This is an offer made in good faith with Northern Ireland and its people's best interest at heart," she said.

Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill dismissed the proposal, however, as an old offer that the DUP knew republicans would reject, and said Mrs Foster's party had learned nothing from the last executive's collapse.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood shared Sinn Fein's scepticism. He branded Mrs Foster's speech a "missed opportunity" to "show real leadership".

Mr Eastwood insisted there was nothing concrete in her speech to confirm she was offering an olive branch regarding an Irish Language Act.

"The proposals made are not a credible solution to the challenges we face, and the DUP leader knows that," he said. "They are the definition of kicking the can down the road."

However, Mr Coveney told Newstalk radio that Mrs Foster had made a "real effort" to try to breathe new life into the talks.

"It is the first time that I have ever heard a leader of the DUP commit to legislating for the Irish language," he said.

"It's the first time I've heard a leader of the DUP say that unionism has nothing to fear from facilitating and supporting the use of the Irish language in Northern Ireland.

"I think it does change the tone of the debate. I think that Arlene Foster has made a real effort."

Mr Coveney, who is in Brussels today meeting chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier to discuss Brexit, is expected at Stormont tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin has said his party would not enter into a coalition with Sinn Fein after the next general election in the Republic.

Writing in the Sunday Independent, he said: "I have compared its behaviour in the past to that of a cult and I see no reason to change this assessment.

"In the 20 years since the last ceasefires, Sinn Fein has a 100% record in putting the interests of the Provisionals' movement ahead of the interests of the State."

He added: "Sinn Fein's behaviour in Belfast shows that its only skill is in bringing down governments, not in using them to work on behalf of all people."

And Fianna Fail TD Eamon O' Cuiv warned Sinn Fein not to "play political games" with the Irish language.

The Galway Gaeltacht TD, who is a strong supporter and speaker of the Irish language, also tweeted: "Disappointed SF didn't give more consideration to Arlene Foster's offer. Her remarks were significant re her approach to the Irish language."

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