Irish Language Act still the stumbling block as hopes of deal diminish
Senior talks sources now believe Sinn Fein and the DUP are unlikely to broker a deal to restore power-sharing this week as the gaps between the two parties "have not narrowed".
A Stormont insider last night told the Belfast Telegraph there had been "a reversal" in the momentum that had brought them to the brink of a deal last week.
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The parties were "finding it impossible" to reach a compromise on the Irish language with bilingual road signs the main stumbling block.
"Sinn Fein are standing firm in their demand for bilingual directional signage on major roads and in tourism areas," said a source.
"They have also asked for the mandatory teaching of Irish in all schools, including state ones, and for quotas in the Civil Service. But it is directional signage which is their red line issue. The DUP has said it cant sign up to that."
The source revealed the DUP had told Sinn Fein it was "holding out for things that just won't be granted".
The insider added: "Sinn Fein has insisted the DUP must move if power-sharing is to be restored. The DUP said it wanted the institutions up and running, but not at any price."
The Belfast Telegraph has been told that media interviews by Irish language activists on Monday caused "confusion and panic" among grassroots unionists who contacted the DUP to express concern.
Arlene Foster said last night: "Our manifesto makes it absolutely clear that we won't sign up to any deal that diminishes Northern Ireland as a part of the UK. That means that, amongst other issues, we won't be agreeing to quotas in Civil Service recruitment policies, bilingual road signs or compulsory Irish language lessons in schools.
"If that's the price of a deal, then there will be no deal.
"Let us be very clear, there will not be a free standing or stand-alone Irish Language Act. We made clear we are prepared to be fair and balanced on language and culture, but one will not be treated above others."
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald told the DUP to show leadership and ignore hardline critics who were opposed to any settlement. Mrs Foster's party had to make up its mind whether it wanted to do a deal or not, she said.
"I am concerned that the leader of the DUP felt moved to come out and talk back to some of the very unhelpful outside noise at this time," she told RTE. "The DUP know, like the rest of us, what is required to reach a deal - Acht Gaeilge and indeed other rights are clearly part of that."
Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy said his party remained focused on reaching an agreement and an Irish Language Act was "essential" to any deal.
"The talks are at a critical stage and our focus remains on achieving a deal to restore the political institutions," he said. "However they want to describe it, the DUP know that agreement requires an Acht Gaeilge.
"This is a time for leadership and calm heads and there is a responsibility on all involved not to react to some of the noise from people who simply don't want an agreement."
TUV leader Jim Allister claimed that while Mrs Foster had "shot down the most extreme and long-term goals" of Irish language activists, she had dodged key questions.
He challenged her to say if she stood over her Assembly election promise that there would be no Irish Language Act. He asked if the DUP would concede rights-based legislation which would "open the door to perpetual judicial reviews funded by the taxpayer".
Mr Allister said Mrs Foster must reveal whether the DUP would grant Irish official language status. He raised questions on whether the party would agree to appointing a language commissioner with statutory powers and to lifting the ban on Irish in the courts.
He said grassroots unionism's response to reports that the DUP was preparing to give ground had caused Mrs Foster to step back.
"Unionism is in no mood to compromise," he added.