DUP members have closed ranks around party leader Arlene Foster, after she appeared to soften her stance on a potential Irish language act.
Senior party members yesterday gave their full backing to the former first minister, who on Monday appeared to roll back on her refusal to consider an Irish language act, just three months after she categorically ruled it out.
Setting out her party’s stance for the general election campaign, the DUP leader made no pledge that her party will block such legislation but suggested that it may demand some recognition for Ulster-Scots, Orangeism and the British identity.
In response to a question from the News Letter as to whether she still firmly ruled out an Irish language act, Mrs Foster said: “In terms of the Irish language act, I said there wouldn’t be an Irish language act in the context of nothing else happening in terms of culture and language.
“And of course we have been in the negotiations for some time and we have been putting forward that we need to respect – not just tolerate, but respect – all cultures in Northern Ireland and that includes, of course, the Ulster-Scots, the Orange and the British culture and identity and affirmation of identity.
“So, if there are to be moves forward in relation to cultural tolerance or respect, then it has to be in the context of doing that and I think we’re very clear in relation to that.”
That contrasts starkly with what Mrs Foster said on February 6 when she stated: “I will never accede to an Irish language act.”
Yesterday, East Londonderry candidate Gregory Campbell refuted the assertion that Mrs Foster had softened her attitude over an Irish language act.
He told the News Letter: “There will be no Irish language act. We have said that all along and that is what we are saying now.”
However, Mr Campbell said there could be merit in a possible cultural act for Northern Ireland as opposed to a stand-alone Irish language act.
He added: “A cultural act which respected the Ulster-Scots language and culture, Orange culture and Ulster-British culture is something I feel there would be broad support for, as it would mean an equalisation of languages in Northern Ireland.”
However, Strangford candidate Jim Shannon, who himself is an Irish speaker, said he did not see the need for a cultural language act, adding that both Ulster-Scots and the Irish language are “thriving just fine” without legislation.
Mr Shannon also said he was not aware of concerns within the DUP regarding Mrs Foster’s stance on the issue of an Irish language act.
He added: “I was at the manifesto launch and I certainly did not get the impression that she is softening her attitude.”
Referencing Mrs Foster’s decision to meet with Irish language groups last month as part of her pledge to better understand the language, Mr Shannon said: “I actually think she has played the whole situation quite canny.
“By meeting with Irish speakers, she has discovered what I learned a long time ago, that people just want to speak the language and don’t want to see it politicised beyond all recognition, which is what Sinn Fein has been doing.”
East Antrim candidate Sammy Wilson felt the assertion that Arlene Foster was softening her attitude over the issue of an Irish language act was “plainly wrong”.
Mr Wilson said: “I am surprised by that interpretation of what was said at the manifesto launch.
“Both Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds spoke at the event and made it clear that as far as the DUP is concerned, the Irish language shouldn’t be a priority given the constraints on our budget.
“We as a party have made it clear we don’t support an Irish language act.”
Mr Wilson added that his support for any kind of cultural act would “depend on its terms”.
But he added: “There is more need for recognition of the unionist culture, as the nationalist culture is already well catered for. It is unionist culture which is lagging behind.”