Belfast Telegraph

Peter Robinson: Now Sinn Fein's turn to step up to plate for greater good and do deal on Stormont

Former DUP leader Peter Robinson writes for the Belfast Telegraph

The DUP have passed the test of being responsible political negotiators. Now it is Sinn Fein's turn to step forward.

With Westminster arithmetic falling perfectly into the DUP's hands there was a striking choice - negotiate for party advantage or negotiate for the people's advantage. The outcome shows the DUP team chose wisely. They put the interests of Northern Ireland first.

This is in stark contrast to how Sinn Fein behaved earlier this year by causing an unnecessary Assembly election for party advantage and creating political paralysis in Northern Ireland.

At the heart of the Sinn Fein case is a demand for an Irish Language Act.  It is pitiful and absurd that republicans would collapse the democratic institutions to advance their cultural agenda.

But it is also based on the belief by Sinn Fein that there was a previous agreement to implement such a measure.

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In truth there was at least a tongue-in-cheek Government agreement to do so contained in the St Andrews Agreement.

As one who was deeply involved in the negotiations at St Andrews, I can help to set the record straight on those events.

It was this experience that, in no small way, convinced Ian (Paisley) and I to conduct later negotiations directly with Sinn Fein. 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, it would be prepared to do the same to us.

Indeed, 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.

So what happened?

l During the negotiations at St Andrews the issue of an Irish Language Act (ILA) was never raised with us at any time. As the negotiations reached a conclusion the Government read to us what was going to be published. There was no reference to an ILA in the document.

l At the end of the negotiations all the party delegations were asked to join the governments for a final plenary session. All the parties, except for the Government and Sinn Fein, were present at the time stated. We waited for a long time before Blair, Adams and their colleagues joined us. We can only assume that it was during the period of the delay that the ILA reference was inserted. We were not informed of any change to the document.

l Afterwards when we noticed the added section Ian and I met the Government to tell it that the inclusion of an ILA was unacceptable to us. We were told the section had been carefully and deliberately worded. It was not an issue that should cause us any concern. 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. Moreover, we were informed that they only wanted the NI parties to accept the St Andrews Agreement "as a basis for progress" and we should not alarm ourselves about the ILA reference because the only thing that ultimately would matter would be the legislation to enact the terms of the St Andrews Agreement.

l At no stage did Ian commit the party to accepting an ILA and, indeed, we made sure there was no commitment to it in the legislation. 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.

l Contrary to what some have said, the DUP never "signed up to the St Andrews Agreement". The correspondence relating to the St Andrews Agreement makes it clear that all we had to do was to consult our organisation "on whether the St Andrews Agreement contained within it the basis for progress". We did. It was. We therefore ensured the legislation properly reflected, amongst other things, a position on the Irish language that was acceptable to us.

At the time Ian was intensely displeased. Not only had the Government changed the document without informing us, but he 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.

And so to the present; it is entirely legitimate for Sinn Fein to press for an Irish Language Act, and of course there is every need for all the parties to respect and, where possible, accommodate differences - but that can never be a one-way street.

There is no credibility in asserting your need to have your culture respected if you blatantly disrespect that of others.

So, let's see a sensible deal. Who can complain if there are those who cherish the Irish language or who passionately support Ulster-Scots culture? Who would find it unacceptable for arrangements to be put on a statutory basis to protect and support both? Both can be accommodated.

It seems that Sinn Fein do not just want the language to be recognised and supported, but require that it is isolated from any other cultural provisions and given supremacy in a free-standing ILA.

It would be churlish to let a deal collapse by demanding a stand-alone Bill as if one culture had pre-eminence and should not be given legal recognition alongside the cultural expression of others. That would not be showing respect or practising equality.

If the Irish language was incapable of co-existing in legislation with other cultural expressions, then surely it would follow that it is not capable of co-existing in life with other cultures. This is manifestly not the case.

People want the Assembly restored and will not easily forgive those who stand in the way. A few weeks ago it was obvious that the Sinn Fein strategy was to avoid getting involved in an Executive in which difficult decisions would have to be taken which might not play well with its Southern voters, who seem to be the party's main interest.

However, recent events may have tipped the scales in the other direction. Firstly, with an extra £1.5 billion to spend there will be fewer difficult decisions to be taken.

Secondly, if Sinn Fein fails to clinch a deal at Stormont its currency in the Republic of Ireland will not strengthen, and indeed may even diminish.

Thirdly and importantly, the alternative is to have direct rule with a Conservative Government in close and direct everyday contact with the DUP.

Business will be done at Westminster where unionism is Northern Ireland's only voice and, post-EU, Sinn Fein's only relevance in Northern Ireland politics will be at council level.

I end where I began. It is Sinn Fein's turn to act responsibly in the interests of the people.

This is a time for leadership, which has not been evident recently from republicans.

Sinn Fein must show that it is interested in the wellbeing of its constituents' health, education, infrastructure and jobs.

Hiding behind political rhetoric and taking refuge in extending its abstentionism is not what is needed.

Has Sinn Fein got the ability to match the DUP and act in the public interest?

We will soon find out.

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