Belfast Telegraph

DUP's Foster pledges to meet Irish language supporters as talks grind to halt

By Noel McAdam

The DUP leader has promised to better understand the Irish language as she announced a series of meetings with supporters of the tongue.

Arlene Foster pledged to engage with those lacking party political baggage or demands.

An Irish language act is a key demand of Sinn Fein in exchange for returning to devolved government at Stormont.

Mrs Foster said: "We do want to respect and indeed better understand the language and culture which we are not a part of and, to that end, over the next short period of time, I do intend to listen and to engage with those from the Gaelic/Irish background, those without party political baggage or indeed demands, people who genuinely love the Irish language and don't want to use it as a political weapon.

"So I very much look forward to that engagement over the next short period of time."

In February, the former Stormont First Minister said more people spoke Polish than Irish in Northern Ireland and declared the party would never agree to an act protecting it.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has said a deal to restore powersharing is being held up by disagreement over "mainly rights-based issues", such as language.

Mrs Foster said yesterday: "In terms of the Irish language, we firmly believe that it needs to be seen in the context of the whole cultural respect and affirmation of identity in Northern Ireland.

"We do recognise that there are people who love the language, who want to speak the language and be facilitated in that respect, but we also say that in respect of Ulster Scots and Orange and British identity that there needs to be respect held for those cultures as well.

"So it is about not just one side or the other, it is about mutual respect for everybody and that is the way in which we are approaching these negotiations; to have that affirmation of identity not just for one section of the community, but for everyone who lives in Northern Ireland and we think that is a very positive way forward."

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the party's MEP Diane Dodds had joined Irish language activist Linda Ervine recently, speaking to people in mainly-loyalist East Belfast about the issue.

He said: "It is important that kind of engagement takes place, we have no difficulty with that whatsoever."

Meanwhile, early May has been set as the latest deadline for the Stormont talks to restore devolution.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire said he is likely to either announce another Assembly election - which would be the third in a year - or bring back some form of direct rule from Westminster in or around the middle of next month.

As meetings between the five main parties dwindled towards an Easter break last night - with no more round-table sessions expected until the week after next - Mr Brokenshire said he believed the gaps between the parties are "surmountable".

"But if no Executive is formed by early May, I will need to take further steps to ensure Northern Ireland has the political stability it needs," he said.

"This is likely to mean, however undesirable, either a second election or a return to decision-making from Westminster."

Mr Brokenshire, who has said there is no public appetite for either option, is attempting to achieve momentum in a talks process which gives every impression of becoming increasingly bogged down.

Despite the lack of any deal, there has been some progress. On dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, the last few weeks are said to have revived a high degree of consensus on proposals contained in the Stormont House Agreement.

On the controversial Irish language act, there are proposals in an options paper on legislation, which also includes Ulster Scots. It also sets out the possibility of combining the roles of an Irish language and Ulster Scots commissioner in a single post.

Other vexed issues include, however, setting a budget, a programme for government, a Bill of rights tailored for Northern Ireland, same-sex marriage and whether Mrs Foster should stand aside as First Minister until the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal is over.

With the shutters coming down last night, Mr Adams pointed the finger at his party's power-sharing partners.

"The DUP are at a crossroads but the problem for us is that we don't know whether they know they are at a crossroads or not," he said.

But he also added that far bigger problems had been overcome in the past and rejected suggestions that the crisis would not have escalated if the late Martin McGuinness was still alive.

"We are not negotiating here for Martin McGuinness. Martin is gone - God rest him. We are negotiating for the future and Martin was about the future more than anything else," he said.

"The DUP in particular and the British government have not yet embraced the fact that the institutions can only go forward on the basis of rights for everyone.

"It's about rights for ethnic minorities, for unionists, for women, for gay and lesbian citizens and Irish speakers."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he was furious, angry and frustrated.

"I don't know how I can look at the public out there when I meet them over the next couple of days that once again we have missed another deadline. I don't think it's good enough," he said.

Ulster Unionist senior negotiator Tom Elliott asked why Sinn Fein could not await the findings of a commission into equality issues they had agreed to in the St Andrews deal. Accusing SF of "going through the motions", the MP said it appeared they did not want to see the Assembly and Executive "up and running".

If direct rule is implemented "it will be a long time before these institutions are back up and running. That's not to the benefit of Northern Ireland," he added.

TUV leader Jim Allister said that "mandatory coalition will never work. It is time to bury it".

"It is long past the point where we must recognise that it cannot work and move on," he said.

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