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DUP U-turn on Irish language bursary 'an act of desperation'

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP's U-turn in restoring funding to an Irish language bursary scheme has been described as a "humiliating climbdown" by a party desperate to avoid an election.

Nationalists welcomed the reversal, but said the DUP must now show greater respect for the language.

However, TUV leader Jim Allister accused Arlene Foster's party of trying to placate Sinn Fein in a last-ditch attempt to avoid facing the electorate.

DUP Communities Minister Paul Givan said he had "identified the necessary funding" for the Liofa scheme to send children from low-income families to the Gaeltacht.

Last night he insisted to the Belfast Telegraph that he had not been offering an olive branch to republicans.

"I took the decision to ensure that Sinn Fein can't use Liofa funding to energise their base during an election campaign," he said.

"I saw the real damage being done to the Irish language by Sinn Fein, which is seeking to sectarianise it and use it as a weapon.

"They ignore the fact that more money is spent on Irish than on Ulster-Scots.

"They were set to use the funding withdrawal to justify their decision to collapse the Executive.

"I wanted to remove that opportunity."

Both nationalist and unionist politicians accused the DUP of trying to use Liofa funding as a "bargaining chip" with Sinn Fein, but claimed it had backfired spectacularly.

The DUP's decision to axe the funding just before Christmas was cited by Martin McGuinness as part of the reason for his resignation as Deputy First Minister.

Mr Allister said: "Why was the money not there before Christmas, but suddenly available when the DUP are desperate to avoid an election?

"Did he (Paul Givan) find it down the back of a boiler?

"The DUP is in concession mode and this £50,000 - which Mr Givan defended withdrawing on the basis that Irish already receives vastly more money than Ulster-Scots just 24 hours ago - is just the start. Sinn Fein/IRA demanded that the money be found, and the DUP duly delivered."

Mr Allister predicted more DUP U-turns after the Assembly election.

"What else will they roll over on after an election to get their jobs back? An Irish Language Act? The Maze? Allowing Sinn Fein/IRA to rewrite the past?

"After all the talk of Sinn Fein/IRA being annoyed because of the DUP's refusal to budge, we now know that when the pressure is really on they will concede to republicans."

UUP MLA Philip Smith claimed that the DUP was in "complete U-turn mode".

He said: "Arlene Foster's reverse on a public inquiry came too little, too late.

"Paul Givan's U-turn on Liofa funding was necessary to reverse a thoughtless decision that should never have been taken in the first place.

"Furthermore, Simon Hamilton's eventual realisation that the RHI costs needed capping demonstrates the disarray within the DUP and their utter desperation to avoid an election." SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone said he welcomed a change in "this shamefully bigoted decision that should never have been made".

He added: "The minister's sudden and unexplained U-turn confirms that his decision was a ham-fisted attempt at political positioning.

"It lays bare that this was first and foremost a political tactic designed to use tribal politics to distract from a DUP leader under fire or perhaps to create a bargaining chip for another backroom deal.

"It has backfired spectacularly."

Sinn Fein MLA Barry McElduff said: "The decision to cut the Liofa bursary of £50,000 for disadvantaged children was disgraceful.

"While this reversal is welcome, it is a decision that should never have been taken.

"The DUP has demonstrated contempt for the Irish Language and that must change. 

"The rights of Irish Language speakers need to be recognised and respected."

Alliance Belfast councillor Emmet McDonough-Brown said that the DUP's U-turn looked "more desperate than decent".

"The original decision was one that smacked of provocation and, sadly, fits a long pattern of DUP disrespect," he said.

"The cost of Liofa is less than a day's worth of subsidy in the (RHI) scandal."

Mr Givan had argued with Sinn Fein Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir on whether Stormont relief payments for those losing out under the Government's 'bedroom tax' can be handed out amid the crisis.

Both ministers yesterday published conflicting advice they had received from their most senior civil servants - with Mr Givan's letter saying it would not be possible to release the money, and Mr O Muilleoir's saying the opposite.

Later, Mr Givan said he would press ahead with the payments by bypassing the Executive and bringing legislation directly before the Assembly, potentially as early as next week.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking down towards an election, with both the British and Irish Governments admitting that one is growing more likely by the day. Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire said: "The reality remains, the high probability remains, that we are heading towards an election," he said.

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