Belfast Telegraph

Despite new wave of optimism at Stormont, stumbling blocks still remain

By Suzanne Breen

It's far too early for supporters of devolution to be cracking open the champagne - but the previous mood of gloom and doom at Stormont has slightly lifted.

Just a few days ago, there were fears about even restarting formal talks in case they would embarrassingly and abruptly end in bad feeling before they had properly begun.

Now there is some confidence that Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill will be able to sit down together and discuss business in a respectful and tolerant manner.

The Irish Government is reportedly positive about the chances of a deal but, as old hands note, Dublin is notoriously optimistic whatever the circumstances.

Yet the feeling from most of those involved in the talks is that things aren't as hopeless as they had appeared just a few days ago.

The Irish Language Act remains the major stumbling block.

Sinn Fein is insisting on a standalone act and the DUP is equally adamant that isn't happening.

Stormont insiders say that Sinn Fein is perhaps the more united party in its approach, with all members singing off the same hymn sheet.

They suggest that while Arlene Foster's party has a formally agreed position, there may be a broader spectrum of opinion within the party - with its MPs resolutely opposed to an Irish Language Act, but some MLAs are prepared to adopt a more flexible approach.

Their jobs, of course, could depend on it.

The DUP strongly denies that any such divisions exist and insists that its Westminster and Stormont teams are at one on the issue.

Party sources claim Sinn Fein's Irish Language Act demands are "totally unreasonable".

They say that £173 million was spent on Irish during the last Assembly's term which "contradicts" the impression of discrimination.

Electorally, the DUP goes into the talks in a stronger position than any party with a massive 290,000 vote in June's Westminster elections.

But that is countered by the fact that five Stormont parties - accounting for 50 of the 90 Assembly members - support some form of Irish Language Act.

Civil servants are struggling to come up with creative solutions for possible legislation with which both sides could live.

Equal marriage, by contrast, appears to be have been so far off the agenda.

It is one of Sinn Fein's demands which would likely be met if they go back into an Executive.

Sources within the DUP privately acknowledge that it no longer has the numbers to drive through a petition of concern on the issue.

Belfast Telegraph

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