Belfast Telegraph

Irish language protection agreed in 2006 - ex-Blair chief of staff

Negotiations that paved the way for the first Sinn Fein/Democratic Unionist-led devolved government at Stormont produced a very clear agreement to protect Irish language speakers, Jonathan Powell has said.

Tony Blair's former chief of staff said his memory of the talks leading up to the 2006 St Andrews Agreement was that, from the Government's perspective, consensus had been reached on the language issue.

An impasse over the Irish language is preventing the restoration of powersharing at Stormont.

Sinn Fein will not go back into a coalition executive with the Democratic Unionists without an Irish language act.

The DUP, for its part, will countenance a broader culture act, that incorporates the Ulster Scots culture, but will not agree to a piece of legislation that offers protections only to the Irish language-speaking community.

Sinn Fein claims a commitment was made in the St Andrews Agreement but the DUP insists the annex that refers to an Irish language act represents a side-deal between the Government and republicans.

Mr Powell, who was on a visit to Belfast on Monday, told the Press Association that, from the Blair government's point of view, the negotiations produced an agreement on the language issue.

"I know how vexed a political point that is here now, but I'd have to say that my memory of the negotiations is very clear that we, the Government had agreed to the Irish language issue.

"Now the DUP will have to interpret what happened in the negotiations in their way, but it was very clear that was agreed there as far as we were concerned."

Mr Powell said any resolution to the current wrangle on the language issue would have to factor in the views of both unionists and republicans.

"I think if you are going to get to a successful agreement on this you are going to have to take into account what both sides want," he said.

"It seems to me that on the republican side, the nationalist side, they are very dug in on this issue, so something will have to be done about this if they are going to find a solution."

The diplomat, who now works in conflict resolution in war zones across the world, expressed hope that powersharing could be restored.

He welcomed the fact that talks between Sinn Fein and the DUP were ongoing away from public glare.

"It has been a very painful process trying to get the institutions up and running, they haven't got there," he said.

"But now the pressure is a little bit off, a little less public, maybe they can come to some sort of compromise because I think the people in Northern Ireland are certainly crying out for the institutions to come back into effect."


From Belfast Telegraph