Sinn Fein reveals ‘draft deal to restore powersharing before DUP pulled plug’
Mary Lou McDonald and Arlene Foster clashed over the reason for the talks’ collapse.
Sinn Fein has outlined details of a draft deal to restore Stormont powersharing which it insists was struck with the Democratic Unionists before they pulled the plug on negotiations.
Party president Mary Lou McDonald accused the DUP of effectively getting cold feet and welching on an agreement that would have ended the impasse that has left Northern Ireland without a functioning government for 13 months.
“We understood above all else that we had a deal, we understood we had landed on a respectful, workable accommodation,” she said.
But the DUP has dismissed the claims as “propaganda”, with party leader Arlene Foster also rejecting suggestions she was over-ruled when she presented the mooted accord to colleagues, branding the theory as “rubbish”.
Mrs Foster also denied Sinn Fein claims that a free-standing Irish Language Act was part of any draft deal.
The latest acrimonious exchanges came as the Prime Minister insisted the basis of an agreement still existed. Theresa May expressed disappointment at the turn of events in phone calls to the party leaders on Thursday evening.
Insisting the Act was present in the text, Mrs McDonald accused some critics of deliberately misrepresenting its contents to whip up fears among unionists, by claiming Irish would be forced upon people.
“I say shame on you for so deliberately misrepresenting a good measure, an inclusive measure in a way that would cause such levels of concern or even distress among our unionist citizens,” she said.
While she declined to publish the full text, Mrs McDonald outlined details verbally at Stormont on Thursday.
She said there was a need to dispel “mistruths and inaccuracies” about what it contained.
The newly elected party president said the ill-fated “draft agreement” was struck late last week.
“At that time we advised the DUP leadership that the deal should be closed before those opposed to it could unpick what we had achieved,” said the Sinn Fein leader.
“We made it clear that if there was a delay there was every chance that the package would unravel.”
Mrs McDonald claimed the DUP’s attitude shifted on Monday to one of “disengagement” before the party crashed the talks on Wednesday when Sinn Fein challenged its negotiators on what was going on.
“It was at that juncture that the DUP faltered,” she said.
The republican TD claimed the deal resolved the thorny language issue at the heart of the Stormont impasse with three separate pieces of legislation – an Irish Language Act, an Ulster Scots Act and an overarching Respecting Language and Diversity Act that incorporated the provisions contained in the other two Acts.
She rubbished rumours that the Irish Language Act contained measures that would see the compulsory teaching of the language in schools or workforce quotas of speakers in the civil service.
“There was no effort to enforce Irish,” she said. “That was never the case and that will never ever be the case.”
Mrs McDonald said no consensus was reached on the region’s ban on same-sex marriage, but the parties acknowledged it would come to the floor of the Assembly via a private member’s Bill.
I regret that we didn’t reach an agreement because they were insisting on having this free-standing Irish Language Act Arlene Foster
But she said the text included a review of the chamber’s controversial Petition of Concern – a voting mechanism used by the DUP in the past to block same-sex marriage despite a majority of MLAs backing it.
She said the deal also would have seen the establishment of a committee to look at the potential of drawing up a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
Mrs McDonald said Sinn Fein had also secured a commitment from the UK Government to commence a public consultation on stalled mechanisms to deal with the Troubles and to release funds needed to finance legacy inquests.
She said it would be “beyond cynical” for the Government not to honour those commitments despite the talks collapse.
Mrs McDonald said the two parties also agreed that the Stormont Executive’s sensitive justice ministry would start to be allocated in a conventional manner from 2022, rather than being a jointly agreed DUP/Sinn Fein nomination.
She said her party would give copies of the text to the UK and Irish governments and brief the smaller Stormont parties on the details, along with party leaders in the Irish Dail.
Mrs Foster insisted there had been no offer to Sinn Fein of an Irish Language Act.
“I regret that we didn’t reach an agreement because they were insisting on having this free-standing Irish Language Act. That is not something that I could sign up to and I was always very clear about that,” she told Sky News.
Mrs Foster dismissed claims said she had lost control of her party as “nonsense” and said that she had kept her party officers briefed throughout the negotiations.
“We have had a number of meetings so I could bring them up to date as to where we are at but I have never felt that I am in a position that I can make a recommendation and so no recommendation has been made to my officer board,” she said.
Civil servants have been running Northern Ireland’s rudderless public services since the last DUP/Sinn Fein-led coalition imploded last January in a row over a botched green energy scheme.
That rift subsequently widened to take in more long-standing disputes over language, social issues and the legacy of the Troubles.
The DUP has said it called a halt to talks due to the need to pass a budget for the next financial year.
It contends the decision has to be taken next week and, given a deal was not possible at Stormont, it therefore has to be tabled by Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley at Westminster.
Stormont’s main parties are also at loggerheads on how Northern Ireland should be governed if talks ultimately fail.
The DUP wants the UK government to reintroduce direct rule.
Sinn Fein insists direct rule is not an option and the Irish government must have a key role in the region if Stormont does not return.
They want that to be actioned through the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference – a peace process structure aimed at fostering cross-border cooperation between the governments.
As it stands Mrs Bradley is under a legal obligation to call another snap election in Northern Ireland but few observers see the merit in such an option, given it would likely return the same political make-up and not resolve any of the outstanding issues.