Belfast Telegraph

Talks to bring back Assembly go on but Irish Language Act is still final obstacle

By Suzanne Breen

Talks to restore power-sharing at Stormont continued late last night as the DUP and Sinn Fein struggled to find a compromise on an Irish Language Act.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire flew back to Belfast to join the negotiations after a House of Commons vote on the Queen's Speech.

A unionist source said: "At the moment, it looks like no deal but never say never. It's not impossible that it ends up the same as at St Andrews where the DUP, Sinn Fein and the two governments work through the night to produce a document at the last minute."

A Stormont source said that Sinn Fein was serious about the negotiations but that the DUP's opposition to a stand-alone Irish Language Act was the major stumbling block.

"If we can get agreement on the Irish Language Act, then all the other issues - like reform of the petition of concern and a Bill of Rights - will be worked out," he predicted.

The DUP is willing to agree only to a hybrid act which includes Ulster Scots.

The politicians have until 4pm today to reach a deal.

Sources said that the DUP wanted the other parties to ask Mr Brokenshire to extend that deadline but they refused to do so. The Assembly is scheduled to meet at midday.

Mr Brokenshire has warned of "profound and serious implications" if today's deadline isn't met but the Government has previously not carried through on its threats and has ensured a soft landing to avoid Stormont's complete collapse.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said: "As it stands, the prospects of a fully inclusive five-party executive being formed on Thursday are receding.

"However we have not given up hope and my party is available to the very end.

"We are in wait and see mode.

"There has been no breakthrough in the talks tonight but neither has there been a collapse."

Mrs Long said that the issue of an Irish Language Act had become of huge symbolic significance to republicans.

"It is no longer about the act itself, for Sinn Fein it is now about respect and acknowledgement of identity," she said.

DUP negotiator Edwin Poots said his party was ready to re-establish devolved government today and select ministers.

"It is up to Sinn Fein if they wish to do that, or if they want to break through the deadline that is a matter for them, but we are happy to nominate ministers," he stated.

He agreed that the Irish language was the main stumbling block to agreement.

"We want to show absolute respect to people's language and culture and are working extremely hard to identify what people's bottom lines are and how we can move those issues forward," he said. "Education and health is a greater priority for me than languages.

"Sinn Fein have identified language as their highest priority."

Mr Poots said that his party wanted to work with Sinn Fein to "try to find a way through" but added, "ultimately, one party can't deliver on this process on its own - it's going to be an engagement."

The Irish government yesterday reiterated its support for an Irish Language Act.

The intervention came after Sinn Fein had urged the two governments to inject "leadership and energy" into the talks.

But Sinn Fein negotiator John O'Dowd claimed that there was no need for an extended deadline.

"Timescale is not the issue," he said.

"It is a willingness by the participants in the talks to resolve the outstanding issues... the DUP have not moved to resolve the issues which brought down the institutions in January.

"Rights, equality and respect need to be resolved, they need to be implemented in legislation and we need to get to that position." Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said that his party didn't support an Irish Language Act and wouldn't provide "cover" for the DUP if it signed up to such legislation.

He insisted that his party should not be taken for granted in the talks and there were many issues it wanted to raise, including mechanisms for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles and pensions for conflict victims.

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