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First and deputy First Ministers set to be nominated today as Irish language row resolved

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Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis pictured at a press conference at Stormont House, Belfast. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis pictured at a press conference at Stormont House, Belfast. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis pictured at a press conference at Stormont House, Belfast. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill are set to be nominated as First and deputy First Ministers today after a deal to resolve the row over Irish language legislation.

Mary Lou McDonald said her party had “broken through the logjam of DUP obstruction” as the British government pledged to legislate for the language in October if Stormont refuses to do so before then.

The Assembly’s business committee is expected to meet urgently to arrange a special sitting to let the DUP and Sinn Fein make the two nominations.

That would allow an Executive meeting to take place later on Thursday to discuss further relaxations to Covid restrictions, and Friday’s North-South Ministerial Council meeting in Armagh could also go ahead.

After leaving negotiations last night, the Sinn Fein president returned just before 1am to address the media at Stormont with Ms O’Neill, Gerry Kelly, Conor Murphy and John Finucane by her side.

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Edwin Poots and Mr Givan, who had conducted their party’s negotiations, did not come back to speak to journalists nor has the DUP immediately issued a statement on the stalemate ending. 

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis expressed his disappointment that Stormont hadn’t brought Irish language legislation.

“However, following my intensive negotiations with the parties over the last few days, I can confirm that if the Executive has not progressed legislation by the end of September, the UK government will take the legislation through Parliament in Westminster,” he said.

“If that becomes necessary, we will introduce legislation in October 2021.” He added that the DUP and Sinn Fein had confirmed to him that they would make their First and deputy First Minister nominations at the “earliest opportunity”.

Although the DUP is opposed to Westminster intervening on the language issue, the fact that the party is still willing to nominate Mr Givan is significant.

Ms McDonald said it was a “special moment” for Irish language speakers.

“Tonight, the British government has agreed to legislate for Acht na Gaeilge and the cultural package at Westminster.

“This will happen in October with commissioners appointed by March 2022.

“We told the British government that this is the only viable option to deliver these rights as the DUP were unwilling and incapable of delivering on their commitments. It is deeply regrettable that the DUP chose to block rights in this way for so long. Tonight, we have broken through all of that.”

The Sinn Fein president recalled how language legislation had been promised in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.

“Irish speakers have been waiting for 15 years for basic rights and recognition to be delivered. This is important for Irish language speakers and for wider society because power sharing is based on inclusion, respect and equality,” she said.

“On this basis of what has been agreed, I am happy to confirm that Sinn Fein will nominate Michelle O’Neill as deputy First Minister and will participate fully in the five-party Executive.

“We have a huge amount of work ahead of us as we come out of Covid and as we continue to rebuild the economy, get people back to work and tackle hospital waiting lists.”

Ms McDonald added that language commissioners could be in place even earlier than March 2022 “but certainly within the mandate of the current Assembly”.

Irish language legislation had been agreed in the New Decade, New Approach agreement which restored power-sharing 18 months ago.

Alliance leader Naomi Long welcomed the resolution of the row which will allow the Executive to continue but added: “The institutions will only ever become sustainable and stable if all parties live up to their promises.

“Every time we have these theatrics, it undermines trust between parties and confidence in the institutions. Forever running to Westminster to do the difficult jobs undermines devolution. And time spent on these stand-offs is time stolen from the people we serve.”

The Secretary of State had flown to Belfast on Wednesday in an attempt to break the stalemate. Earlier this week, Sinn Fein had said it wouldn’t nominate Ms O’Neill for deputy First Minister unless Irish language legislation was introduced at Westminster.

After Arlene Foster’s resignation as First Minister on Monday, the DUP and Sinn Fein had just seven days to nominate for the two positions or power sharing would collapse. An October election, which was on the cards had Mr Givan and Ms O’Neill not been nominated, has now been averted.


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