Belfast Telegraph

DUP offer made knowing that we would reject it, says SF

By Suzanne Breen

Sinn Fein has dismissed a DUP compromise proposal on the Irish language as an old offer that Arlene Foster knew republicans would reject.

However, the party's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill welcomed Mrs Foster's assertion that the DUP "had nothing to fear from the Irish language" and that it wasn't a threat to the Union.

While Sinn Fein sees nothing new in Mrs Foster's proposal, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney described it as a genuine effort to show leadership and reach out towards compromise.

The DUP leader has renewed her offer in an article in today's Belfast Telegraph.

She writes: "It is an offer made in good faith with the interests of the people of Northern Ireland at heart.

"We should not permit our political disagreements to get in the way of what needs to be done right now in striking a budget, in pressing ahead with much needed health reforms and in attracting jobs and investment."

Mrs Foster is pledging to legislate for the Irish language within a set period if power-sharing is restored.

She has described her offer, outlined in a key address in a Belfast hotel on Thursday night, as a "common sense solution" that could break the political deadlock.

But speaking at a press conference in Belfast yesterday, Ms O'Neill said: "It was an offer which they knew would be rejected and it certainly wasn't a new offer.

"This parallel process has been discussed and disregarded throughout the course of all the negotiations we have had to date."

The Sinn Fein leader said the intervention showed that unionists hadn't listened to or acknowledged the reasons for Martin McGuinness's resignation as deputy First Minister in January.

"Establishing an Executive that may collapse after a matter of months on the same issues will only fail all our people," she said.

"Let's agree to quickly conclude talks on implementation and rights, that is the only way to build a sustainable Executive that will last."

The Sinn Fein Stormont leader was questioned about the demand for an Irish Language Act given that a relatively low number of her party's representatives in Northern Ireland are fluent speakers.

She said it wasn't a demand for Sinn Fein but "a demand for all society" and asserted that republicans were pursuing a broader rights-based agenda.

She re-stated her party's commitment to restoring devolution.

"The public want local institutions, they want local ministers to be held to account," she added.

However, DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson insisted his party's offer was new and proved that it wanted agreement on outstanding issues.

The problem wasn't the Irish language but "the unreasonable demands" Sinn Fein was making, he said.

Sir Jeffrey claimed that Sinn Fein wanted 10% of all public jobs to go to Irish speakers when only "0.8% of people in Northern Ireland have Irish as their first language".

He added: "I fear that it is Sinn Fein, and not my own party, which lacks commitment to power-sharing. Sinn Fein is putting what they describe as a powerful Irish Language Act ahead of other priorities like health, education and Brexit."

Sinn Fein MLA Mairtin O Muilleoir last night accused Sir Jeffrey of "scraping the bottom of the barrel" in his opposition to an Irish Language Act.

He maintained that Sinn Fein had never proposed that 10% of all public jobs go to Irish speakers.

"The DUP's refusal to afford Irish language speakers in the North, rights which speakers of Welsh, Gaelic and Irish enjoy across these islands is shameful and speaks more of our divided past than of the shared future Sinn Fein wishes to see," he said.

"The DUP realise their arguments against the Irish language wouldn't stand up in any progressive European society which is why they are now scraping the bottom of the barrel to find excuses for continuing to say 'no' to a society of equals."

In today's Belfast Telegraph, Mrs Foster insists she understands "the need to deal with matters of culture and language in a mature way that aims to engender real respect for the multitude of cultures that co-exist in Northern Ireland".

She continues: "To make progress we can either enter another round of talks - parties can restate their positions whilst waiting lists grow longer, investment opportunities are missed and Northern Ireland's voice continues to be absent from Brexit negotiations - or we can try something different.

"I have put forward a common-sense solution that can give us the Executive we need, and resolve outstanding issues. A winners and losers approach to discussions will only guarantee failure in both the short and the long-term."

Earlier, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin criticised Sinn Fein's rejection of Mrs Foster's proposals, saying the decision was letting down the working people of Northern Ireland.

But Gerry Adams dismissed his criticism as "jaded political opportunism".

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