Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein holding firm on Irish Language Act after Foster proposes Stormont return

DUP leader Arlene Foster (right) and Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill (Owen Humphreys/PA)
DUP leader Arlene Foster (right) and Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill (Owen Humphreys/PA)
Gareth Cross

By Gareth Cross

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill has said that an Irish Language Act must be part of any deal to restore power-sharing at Stormont.

The Sinn Fein vice-president was speaking after DUP leader Arlene Foster reiterated she was willing to legislate for Irish language protections, under certain conditions.

She said she wanted to resume talks with Sinn Fein after the General Election to break the Stormont deadlock.

However Mrs Foster stopped short of committing to an Irish Language Act and said she would support protections as part of wider cultural laws that would also include British and Ulster Scots traditions.

Speaking to the Press Association the DUP leader restated her proposal to restore the Assembly and set up a parallel process to find a resolution to the language dispute.

The Stormont Assembly collapsed in January 2017 when the late deputy First Minsiter Martin McGuinness resigned in the wake of the RHI scandal.

Attempts to revive Stormont through power-sharing talks have remained fruitless. Sinn Fein claim an agreement was reached in February 2018, before the DUP walked away over an Irish Language Act.

Mrs Foster appeared to offer Sinn Fein an olive branch on the Irish language at her party conference in October when she offered to "seek accommodation and legislate in a balanced way for language and culture, including for the Irish language"

“There are many people in Northern Ireland who love the Irish language, and we have no desire to put a barrier up to them accessing public services,” the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA told PA.

“And therefore we believe there’s ways of doing that through legislation and, indeed, through facilitation, and we can do that, that’s not a problem.

“But why are we holding up the Assembly while we’re trying to work out the details of all of that?”

In response to Mrs Foster's comments Ms O'Neill said that she remained committed to working towards a new Assembly and "a new kind of politics" in the New Year.

She said Sinn Fein stood ready to "form a credible, sustainable and inclusive Executive".

Sinn Fein met with Secretary of State Julian Smith to discuss the situation at Stormont last week and Ms O'Neill said the party planned to meet Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney this week for similar discussions.

The Mid Ulster MLA said that for any new Executive to be credible there was a long list of issues, including an Irish Language Act, that need to be addressed.

"It must deliver on issues such as public sector pay, safe staffing levels in the health service, economic policies that delivers prosperity for all and that invests in rural communities, and a mitigation package that protects people from Tory welfare reform," Ms O'Neill said.

“To be credible all the outstanding issues must be dealt with including an Irish Language Act and reform of the Petition of Concern and we need to tackle the failure by the British government to implement the Stormont House Agreement and deal with the issue of legacy.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

The statements from the DUP and Sinn Fein leadership were welcomed by Secretary of State Julian Smith.

"I welcome commitments today by both major Northern Ireland party leaders to commit to immediate talks after the General Election. Getting Stormont up and running is key for Northern Ireland," he said.

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