Belfast Telegraph

Irish language won't block restoration of Executive, vows Foster

By Michael McHugh

The Irish language "should not be a stumbling block" to setting up a new Stormont executive, Arlene Foster has said.

The DUP leader also said her party has no deal-breaking "red lines" that would be an obstacle to restoring government in Northern Ireland.

The former First Minister was writing for the Belfast Telegraph after feeling "uplifted" about meeting Irish language pupils in Co Down.

Mrs Foster met staff and students at Our Lady's Grammar School in Newry in a bid to better understand the love of the tongue held by those from a non-political background.

She was strongly criticised for making disparaging comments during a recent Assembly election campaign but yesterday exchanged a few words 'as gaeilge' with teachers in farewell.

"I was really uplifted this morning by the girls and what they were able to tell me and what they were able to show me," she said.

She said she enjoyed a lovely piece of drama and a song.

"It was wonderful, I just had a great morning.

"It has set me up for the rest of the day."

In her article for this newspaper, Mrs Foster said she has been consulting widely about the language and had found others in agreement with her that Irish should not be politicised.

She wrote: "The Irish language should not, and cannot, be used by anyone as a political weapon.

"It is grossly unfair that the Irish language has been used as a political football by some politicians in Northern Ireland.

"The Irish language should not be a stumbling block to setting up an executive in Northern Ireland.

"To be clear, the DUP is prepared for government now, we have no red lines.

"Education, health, the economy and our children's futures are too important to be held to ransom."

In February, Mrs Foster said more people spoke Polish than Irish in Northern Ireland and declared the party would never agree to an act protecting the language, a key Sinn Fein aim in negotiations to restore power-sharing.

But yesterday, she clarified: "It had become very much a political demand and as we talked about Irish, its culture and affirmation of identity in the talks, I felt that it would be good to step back from the Irish language as a political demand and to actually listen to people who loved the language and wanted to use it in their every day lives.

"That is what I am trying to do.

"I am on a journey of doing that. I have met with some individuals already around why they believe Irish is so important to them."

Sinn Fein surged at the polls in the March Assembly elections after the party accused the DUP of showing disrespect towards the language.

Mrs Foster's comparison of making concessions to Sinn Fein to feeding crocodiles backfired and she has said she regretted it as it allowed her opponents to demonise her.

Now with a general election looming, the DUP leader is taking a very different approach.

While there is no suggestion Mrs Foster is motivated purely by electoral gain, this is contentious ground for any unionist leader.

An Irish language act would protect its use in a range of official settings.

In 2015, Sinn Fein launched a consultation on a law including the use of Irish by public bodies, in the courts, and in the Stormont assembly.

Unionists have urged measures for Ulster Scots speakers and progress on other identity issues.

Mrs Foster said yesterday's meeting was instructive; that it was a sign of strength to engage with a culture not her own.

"One of the very strong things that came across was the passion that the girls had for the language and it is really good to strip away all the politics out of this issue and just to listen in a very clear way as to how Irish and the language has helped in the study of other languages and to give them a head start in relation to job opportunities as well."

She said everyone had different views about what was needed to protect it.

Today she is due to meet some other advocacy and support groups.

Mrs Foster's parting words - 'thank you' in Irish - after meeting the children in Newry were the same words that a DUP MP mocked in 2014.

The party's East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell was barred from addressing the Assembly for a day after failing to apologise for a parody of the expression for thank you, go raibh maith agat.

A row developed after he began his address to the devolved parliament with: "Curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer".

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