Belfast Telegraph

Tony Blair deceived Sinn Fein on Irish language at St Andrews, says ex-DUP chief Robinson

By Suzanne Breen

Former DUP leader Peter Robinson has accused Tony Blair's government of "conning" Sinn Fein into believing that an Irish Language Act would be introduced.

Mr Robinson made his extraordinary revelation as talks to save Stormont enter their final hours, with Sinn Fein demanding that outstanding agreements on the Irish language are honoured. The former First Minister insisted that his party had never agreed to any such legislation. He accused the UK Government of deliberately misleading Sinn Fein and of changing a document without the DUP's knowledge.

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He claimed that the Rev Ian Paisley was so troubled by the deception of Sinn Fein, and by the Government's double-dealing, that he vowed to conduct all future negotiations directly with republicans.

Mr Robinson said: "It was Ian's assessment - and in my view an accurate one - that if the Government was prepared to con Sinn Fein in the way it did they would be prepared to do the same to us."

He revealed how "in later life Martin McGuinness and I often spoke about the different, inexact and misleading messages we were given during earlier negotiations when the Blair government was acting as intermediary".

In his recollection of events during the 2006 St Andrews talks, Mr Robinson said that while Sinn Fein genuinely believed an agreement to implement an Irish Language Act had been reached, there had been only "a tongue-in-cheek" promise by the government.

Mr Robinson said that the issue of an Irish Language Act was "never raised" with his party during the negotiations. He believes that a reference was inserted into the Agreement at the very end of the talks.

"We were not informed of any change to the document," he said. When the DUP noticed the "added section", they informed the Government that it was "unacceptable" to the party.

"We were told the section had been carefully and deliberately worded. It was not an issue that should cause us any concern," Mr Robinson said.

"They informed us that as devolution would be up and running the Government would not make good its commitment as the power would be devolved."

Mr Robinson claimed that the Government asked the parties to accept the St Andrews Agreement only "as a basis for progress" and that the DUP shouldn't be alarmed about the Irish language reference because "the only thing that ultimately would matter" would be the legislation to enact the Agreement's terms.

"At no stage did Ian commit the party to accepting an Irish Language Act, and indeed we made sure there was no commitment to it in the legislation," he said.

"Instead, the Government agreed to dilute any reference to the Irish language to a requirement for an Irish Language Strategy. They also inserted an equal requirement for an Ulster-Scots Language and Culture Strategy."

Mr Robinson said that Dr Paisley had been "intensely displeased" by the Blair administration's trickery.

"Not only had the Government changed the document without informing us, but (Ian) was unhappy about the Government's deception of Sinn Fein and was concerned that, when Sinn Fein realised they had been conned, problems would arise. 

"I remember him saying to me at the time: 'It's not the way to do business'. How right he was."

The DUP and Sinn Fein have just over 24 hours to reach an agreement before Thursday's talks deadline.

However, Stormont sources last night said they believed that if no deal was possible, the deadline would be fudged or other "creative compromises" found to avoid the reintroduction of direct rule.

Sinn Fein yesterday accused the DUP or refusing to budge on key issues at the heart of the negotiations.

Delivering a bleak assessment of the talks, party chairman Declan Kearney hinted that Sinn Fein could drop its opposition to Arlene Foster returning as First Minister if the DUP gave ground in other areas.

Mr Kearney claimed that the DUP wasn't prepared to agree to a stand-alone Irish Language Act, the introduction of same-sex marriage, and a specific Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

"The DUP have not moved on any of the substantive issue which sit at the heart of this crisis. They haven't moved on any of the fundamental rights and equality issues that require to be embraced," he said.

The DUP's Edwin Poots, urged Sinn Fein not to engage in "high wire acts". He suggested a "parallel process" could be initiated with an Executive formed while talks on continued. Mr Poots admitted that the ongoing negotiations couldn't be described as "easy". He said: "Nonetheless we want to get Stormont up and running and we can get it up and running straight away and distribute the money our DUP have successfully received from the UK Government.

"I would encourage Sinn Fein to be mature, no high wire acts, let's get down to work, knuckle down and find a way through this."

Secretary of State James Brokenshire said that there had been intensive engagement by the parties on equality and language issues, but that the coming hours were crucial.

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