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Irish language community welcomes Arlene Foster's pledge to meet Gaelic speakers

By Rebecca Black

Irish language groups and Sinn Fein have welcomed DUP leader Arlene Foster's pledge to meet Gaelic speakers.

An Irish Language Act has become one of the major stumbling blocks in political talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein to restore power sharing.

But now the former first minister has said she wanted to engage with Gaelic speakers who lacked party political baggage.

POBAL, the independent advocacy group for the Irish language, said it would gladly accept Mrs Foster's invitation to meet with Irish speakers.

The group has already written to the DUP leader to arrange a meeting.

"Some may say that this recognition from Arlene Foster that she needs to engage with Irish speakers has come rather late in the day, given that it is 10 years since the St Andrews Commitment to legislate for the language, but POBAL has always been happy to engage with all," said the group's director, Janet Muller.

"We welcome the chance to meet Arlene Foster and explain to her why our proposals for a comprehensive, rights-based act is the best approach to ensure good service delivery and minimise the frustration that could arise from a weak mish-mash of compromises.

"We have written to Mrs Foster to arrange a meeting."

Irish language provider East Belfast Mission also welcomed the statement from Mrs Foster, and said they would like to issue an invitation to any member of the DUP to learn more about their work.

Linda Ervine, Irish language development officer for the East Belfast Mission, said dialogue can "only be positive".

"It is the view of the Mission that the Irish language is a cultural resource and we believe that all politicians should view it in that light," she said.

"It is a language which links us linguistically to other parts of these islands and is a key to our history, place-names, surnames and Ulster English.

"Irish Gaelic is one of a number of Celtic languages used throughout the United Kingdom, including Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish.

"The British government and devolved administrations conserve and promote these languages.

"We believe that increasing knowledge of the language and interaction with Irish speakers will reduce the tendency to stereotype Irish speakers or associate them with particular political perspectives."

She added her support for an Irish Language Act to take the matter away from party politics and bring it into line with other parts of the UK.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein MLA Mairtin O Muilleoir said: "Anything which encourages dialogue, which encourages conversation, which encourages increased understanding of our shared heritage, has to be positive."

Negotiations have been adjourned for the Easter break.

Mr O Muilleoir added: "As we move into this little time-out we should take yesterday's initiative from Arlene Foster positively, and we should also hope then that she listens carefully to the views of the Irish language community, because they are absolutely united and firm on the need for an Irish Language Act, but even more than that, they really do want to be treated with respect."

On Wednesday, 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."

Last night, a DUP spokesperson said: "We are currently in the process of arranging meetings with Irish language groups and will continue engagement with these groups after the Easter period."

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