Sinn Fein using Irish Act to bring Northern Ireland to its knees, claims Agnew
Green Party leader Steven Agnew says that while he backs an Irish Language Act, he doesn't "support Sinn Fein bringing this country to its knees".
Addressing his party's conference in Belfast at the weekend, Mr Agnew said Sinn Fein in particular was responsible for the chaos in health and education due to the lack of a budget.
"It was historic when Sinn Fein took the reins of finance for the first time in 2016. It was a disgrace when for the first time ever Northern Ireland was left without a budget," he said.
"Yes, I support an Irish Language Act. Greens have supported indigenous languages across Europe. But let me very clear. I do not support Sinn Fein bringing this country to its knees.
"It is rare that you'll hear me agree with Arlene Foster but, as with RHI, for Sinn Fein the Irish Language Act has become the excuse not to go into government, but not the reason."
Around 100 delegates attended the conference including new member Sophie Long, who resigned from the PUP in March after her comment on social media about Martin McGuinness's death sparked outrage among loyalists.
Mr Agnew said a majority of MLAs supported an Irish Language Act, equal marriage, and a Bill of Rights.
He added: "If Sinn Fein were serious about these issues, the solution would be to get agreement on reform of the petition of concern. However, this has been little more than a side issue of the discussions."
He said the petition of concern hadn't been made an issue because it wouldn't bring people onto the streets.
"It does not tap into the historical division of Northern Irish society ... it does not fit the Sinn Fein divide and conquer strategy," he continued.
Mr Agnew expressed fears that Northern Ireland could be facing a lengthy period of direct rule and admitted that, with Stormont not functioning, he was embarrassed to be an MLA. The Green leader said it was "galling to see Sinn Fein's crocodile tears over Brexit" as it had failed "to mount any campaign for Remain" and chose to stay "out of power while key decisions are being made about the future of this island".
Turning to the DUP, Mr Agnew said Arlene Foster had accused those who raised the border issue during the EU referendum of scaremongering.
"It is unionists who now fear a coalescing of opinion around the idea of shifting the border to the Irish Sea," he commented.
He said either the UK should "ditch Brexit altogether" or remain in the Customs Union and "secure a deal that looks so much like Remain". There must be a second referendum on any deal reached with the EU, he added.
Meanwhile, Fermanagh and South Tyrone representative Tanya Jones was elected as the Greens' new deputy leader to replace Clare Bailey.
"Here in Northern Ireland, the Green Party has led the way on many, initially unpopular campaigns," she said.
"We were the first to call for marriage equality, a ban on dangerous fracking, the decriminalisation of abortion, a referendum on the final Brexit deal and a new civic conversation to renew and revitalise the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement."