Foster olive branch to Sinn Fein on Irish legislation

Arlene Foster speaking tonight in south Belfast
Arlene Foster speaking tonight in south Belfast

DUP leader Arlene Foster tonight appeared to offer an olive branch to Sinn Fein, setting out a proposal to restore Stormont and then legislate for the Irish language within a set period.

In the first apparent attempt to end the stand-off between the two parties after a summer of escalating rhetoric on both sides, Mrs Foster called for “a new cultural deal” rather than “short-term patches or political expediency”.

Speaking to her party’s ruling executive at a south Belfast hotel, the former first minister delivered a carefully crafted speech with none of the rhetoric which antagonised nationalists earlier this year.

Mrs Foster, whose party once derided the Irish language in lurid terms, emphasised not only her respect for the language, but told her party that “we have nothing to fear from the Irish language – nor is it any threat to the Union”.

She went on to highlight that the party had “previously supported practical measures for the Irish language and we will do so again if we can reach a wider agreement on these matters. However what we cannot and will not do is simply agree to one-sided demands.”

Mrs Foster said that “another prolonged talks process is little short of a waste of time unless there is some new thinking” and then set out her key proposal: “I am putting forward a common sense solution that can give us the Executive we need and resolve outstanding issues.

“I am proposing that we restore an Executive immediately. Put ministers back into posts so that decisions can be made and that Northern Ireland can have a government again.

“But we also agree to bring forward legislation to address culture and language issues in Northern Ireland within a time-limited period to be agreed. If we fail to do that in a way that commands cross community support then the Executive would cease to exist.”

She added: “A winners and losers approach to discussions will only guarantee failure in both the short and long-term.”

O’Neill rejects Foster’s overture

Jim Allister: Now DUP leader is begging SF to return to Stormont

However, although what Mrs Foster has proposed appears to indicate a significant shift, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams had the previous day emphatically ruled out any possibility of compromise on the issue, saying: “There will be no Assembly and no Executive without a stand-alone Irish Language Act”.

Prior to Mrs Foster’s speech, Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader, Michelle O’Neill, said that her party was “committed to the re-establishment of the Executive” but warned that “the DUP is well aware of what is required to get the political institutions back up and running”.

However, in listing Sinn Fein’s demands Ms O’Neill appeared to drop the one red line which the party had set out when Martin McGuinness brought devolution down in January – that Mrs Foster could not be first minister while the RHI inquiry is ongoing.

Instead, Ms O’Neill said: “We need to see the implementation of outstanding agreements and an end to the denial of rights enjoyed by citizens everywhere else on these islands on language, marriage and access to coroner’s courts.”

Mrs Foster said that there was an urgent need for democratic control of government in Northern Ireland, particularly because of the crisis in the NHS, where waiting lists are continuing to spiral but where millions of pounds from the DUP-Tory deal would be unlocked once a minister is appointed.

Indicating her support for direct rule from Westminster if Stormont remains collapsed, she said that if agreement cannot be reached “very quickly”, then “London will be required to take decisions”, adding: “Northern Ireland simply cannot continue without democratic oversight and that means the speedy introduction of direct rule if agreement is not reached.”

Mrs Foster said that Sinn Fein had “built a barrier to the return of Stormont” and again questioned whether republicans were serious about returning to power-sharing in the short term: “Serious negotiations are always marked by signs of intent with a willingness to find agreements that both sides can support.

“The talks earlier in the year were characterised by a sense that everyone must move to facilitate Sinn Fein demands. If we are to have an agreement then there will need to be a willingness on all sides to reach out in order to secure a durable outcome.”

The DUP leader also dismissed any suggestion that the party’s Westminster influence meant that it no longer needed Stormont. Mrs Foster spoke about devolution in strategic terms, arguing that Stormont was in the party’s “longer-term best interests”.

And Mrs Foster, whose opponents have often accused her of arrogance, attempted to strike a humble tone about the DUP’s extraordinary general election result.

She said that the scale of the party’s triumph – polling the highest number of votes which any party in Northern Ireland has secured since 1985 – that it would be “easy to get carried away on a wave of euphoria” and attribute the result entirely to “our policy platform or the performance locally of our MPs”.

In reality, Mrs Foster said, the result had as a result of people who came out to “vote for the Union” in a tactical way and that not all of those who voted for the DUP were “sudden converts to the DUP”.

Below the Foster speech in full

O’Neill rejects Foster’s overture

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ARLENE FOSTER’S FULL SPEECH

“This is the first occasion that we have met as a Party since our tremendous victory back in

June.

We have fought so many elections of late that we maybe haven’t taken time to reflect fully on

the scale of our success.

By any measure, the June General Election was an amazing one for the Democratic Unionist

Party.

We returned the highest number of Members of Parliament in our history.

We secured the highest percentage share of the vote for the Party ever.

And we obtained the largest total vote for any Party in Northern Ireland since 1985.

So resounding was our win that it would be easy to get carried away on a wave of euphoria

believing that it was solely because of our policy platform or the performance locally of our

MPs.

We know – because we knocked doors across the country and spoke at length with voters –

that it was, above all, a victory for our precious Union. People turned out to vote for the

Union.

The characterisation of the March Assembly election result as a “wake up call” for unionism

wasn’t some fancy piece of spin or marketing. It was what we heard time and time again

coming from unionist voters all over Northern Ireland.

The shock of seeing Sinn Fein come within one seat and 1,200 votes of becoming the biggest

Party in Northern Ireland had a galvanising effect on many unionists.

Between May 2016 and June 2017 – just 13 months – almost 100,000 voters flocked to the

DUP banner.

Let me say that I am deeply appreciative of those who voted for us in June, many of whom

will have done so for the first time. As a Party let me say to them that we do not take their

support for granted. Nor do we believe that they are all sudden converts to the DUP. We

know that, for many, they saw a vote for the DUP as the best way to express support for the

Union that they care so deeply about.

Unionists came together like never before remembering the old rallying cry that “united we

stand, divided we fall”. They have placed an unparalleled trust in the DUP and it is now our

job to work to prove the value of their vote and demonstrate how we can advance the unionist

cause.

I have said many times before that the Union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the

United Kingdom is stronger and more vibrant today than at any time in my life. But that does

not mean that there aren’t those who will seize every opportunity to make the alternative case

for a United Ireland weak though that case may be.

June’s election result was an astounding affirmation of the enduring attraction of the Union

across the UK but it must not be taken as a signal to send us back into some sort of

complacent slumber. It should instead be the spark that reignites our commitment to

articulating its benefits for us all.

We cannot rest on the laurels of June. Nor can we sit back and rely on the present strength of

our numbers. We must take every opportunity we find to make the convincing case for the

Union. And that includes persuading those who don’t vote for the DUP or indeed any

unionist party.

Perhaps in the past we have taken the Union for granted to the extent that we have failed to

articulate why Northern Ireland is better off being part of the UK.

All too often, our arguments for the Union have centred on finance and the economy.

Northern Ireland undoubtedly benefits hugely from being part of the world’s fifth biggest

economy and our membership of the UK rewards us with a quality of life and standard of

living that we’d never achieve in a united Ireland.

But as crucial as it is, the case for the Union doesn’t rely solely upon the economy and

finances.

The United Kingdom is not the biggest nation in the world but our language, our music, our

literature, our arts and our sporting success projects a power around the globe that pure

numbers of people can never do.

There are few countries that can boast of the rich tapestry of peoples who populate the UK all

of whom make an invaluable contribution to the diversity and strength of today’s United

Kingdom.

Our United Kingdom is an inspiration to fledgling democracies looking to establish freedom

and democracy in their own lands. And through our sacrifice on the battlefields of World

Wars and other conflicts we have helped set millions of people free from tyranny.

Our shared values, our shared history and our shared culture are the threads that have tied us

together as one nation down through the generations and they are what gives us more strength

and more influence today than we would have if we were apart.

Unionism is and always was a “broad church”. But the one thing that tied us all together

regardless of our background was our support for the Union. We are bound as one by our

resolute belief that the interests of all of our people are best served by Northern Ireland

remaining part of the United Kingdom.

Unionism is, by its very nature, all embracing. It is not an ideology that styles itself as

“ourselves alone”. If you love the Union as much as we do then it doesn’t matter about your

class, your religion or your ethnicity.

Our unionism unites people in a common cause. As we make the case for the Union, it is

imperative that those who cherish the Union should stand side by side in defence of what we

value the most.

The General Election result placed a huge responsibility upon this Party. We have –

because of the votes of the people of Northern Ireland – been charged with assisting in

bringing stability to our nation at the time when it needs it most. Unionists from this corner

of the Kingdom want – and are entitled – to play their part in strengthening our great nation

every bit as much as their countrymen in England, Scotland or Wales. And that is what we

have done and what we will continue to do.

Some who sought to undermine us from the start said that we would selfishly pursue Party

interests in our discussions with the Conservative Party. Instead, we secured a financial

package worth £1.5 billion that is intended to boost our economy, rebuild our infrastructure,

help reform our NHS and will be to the benefit of everyone, everywhere in Northern Ireland.

I’ve heard it said that the unprecedented position that the DUP now finds itself in at

Westminster means that we don’t want or need a return of devolution.

Unionism has never had so much influence in Parliament and nationalism’s voice isn’t heard

at all in Westminster. But as appealing as it first appears, that view fails to take account of

our longer-term best interests.

The Democratic Unionist Party has always believed that Northern Ireland is best governed by

a democratic, fair and accountable government comprising locally elected representatives.

While the new parliamentary arithmetic delivers a measure of influence it does not change

our fundamental belief in Northern Ireland shaping its own destiny.

I want to see devolution restored immediately and we are working to that end. But, as we all

know, Sinn Fein have built a barrier to the return of Stormont and, as I indicated earlier in the

Summer, I question whether Sinn Fein is serious about wanting to see an early return of

Stormont. This is not an unreasonable question given some of the recent comments from

Gerry Adams.

Serious negotiations are always marked by signs of intent with a willingness to find

agreements that both sides can support. The talks earlier in the year were characterised by a

sense that everyone must move to facilitate Sinn Fein demands. If we are to have an

agreement then there will need to be a willingness on all sides to reach out in order to secure

a durable outcome.

The challenge of our devolved system has always been working together for the common

good while satisfying the needs and aspirations of the communities who elect us. These

tensions were never easy to manage or balance both within the institutions or the impact of

actions elsewhere.

For our part we have kept our focus on the common good.

Over the last number of months, I have visited a range of cultural and language groups in

Northern Ireland. I was conscious of the criticism laid against our Party and wanted to go out

and listen to people. I thank all those who engaged with me. I met people whose passion for

their culture and language was clear, deep and genuine.

Perhaps it was my discussions with Irish language groups that attracted the greatest publicity

and thus caught the public attention. I very much appreciated the time taken by those whose

passion and commitment for the Irish language was self-evident.

We have nothing to fear from the Irish language nor is it any threat to the Union. We have

previously supported practical measures for the Irish language and we will do so again if we

can reach a wider agreement on these matters.

However what we cannot and will not do is simply agree to one-sided demands.

I have also heard from those within the unionist community who hear others speaking about

respect whilst at the same time they engage in a campaign to denigrate and demonise any and

all aspects of our British identity in Northern Ireland or insult the Ulster-Scots community.

That is not acceptable.

In 2021, Northern Ireland will celebrate its centenary. Too much of the tale of our first

century has been hallmarked by division. Now we stand on the cusp of a new century for

Northern Ireland. I want the story of Northern Ireland’s next 100 years to be of a place and

people that thrive within the United Kingdom. And I believe that cultural security and

confidence are vital to this new, more positive chapter in our history.

We must celebrate and promote the diversity of cultural wealth of Northern Ireland in all its

aspects.

We must affirm the identities people hold here.

We must enable those identities to develop and to be passed down to future generations.

We must welcome and integrate the new identities that have made Northern Ireland their

home and who are are adding to our cultural wealth.

And we must celebrate our pride in our home and the achievements of all of our people.

Short-term patches or political expediency is not what is needed. I believe a new vision and

new commitment on identities is needed. We must establish a new cultural deal to provide a

comprehensive and long-term approach to the sensitive issue of identity.

In practical terms, Government actions and policy should be built around respect,

recognition, representation and resource for the identities here.

I truly believe that as small as Northern Ireland may be, there is sufficient space for our

wealth of cultures to thrive side by side.

As issues of identity, culture and language remain unresolved, what is becoming increasingly

clear is that Northern Ireland needs government.

When Departments are preparing for 12% cuts.

When bowel cancer patients can’t access new tests that people in the rest of the UK can.

And when small businesses can’t get the rates support they’re entitled to.

You can see how a lack of decision making at the highest level of government is beginning to

impact negatively of them lives to our people.

It might be popular to talk Stormont down but any amount of negativity can’t mask the reality

that devolution has delivered much for all of our people and that a locally elected Assembly

and Executive are best placed to grapple with the challenges that Northern Ireland faces.

Unless agreement can be found very quickly then London will be required to take decisions.

Northern Ireland simply cannot continue without democratic oversight and that means the

speedy introduction of direct rule if agreement is not reached.

The DUP still wants devolution. We were prepared to restore the Executive 5 months ago

and we have drawn no red lines and we are willing to enter Government immediately without

pre-conditions.

I want to get government up and going again not so the DUP can take up ministerial posts.

But rather because we need an Executive in place to take crucial and increasingly pressing

decisions on a raft of important issues such as public finances, health and education reform

and infrastructure development.

Sinn Fein has said that they won’t go back into office until so-called previous agreements are

implemented. Many of the issues they cite are not in fact part of previous agreements with

this party and, in some cases the issues they pursue were not part of agreements with any

party or Government in the past.

I disagree with them that the issues that they are pushing are the most important that we face.

That’s not me saying that language or culture isn’t important. To me - and to many - they just

should not have a greater priority than health or education or the economy.

But I understand and appreciate the need to deal with matters of culture and language in a

mature way that aims to engender real respect for the multitude of cultures that co-exist in

Northern Ireland today.

How then do we resolve these issues and establish the Executive and have the Northern

Ireland Assembly sitting to do the business the people elected us to do?

Well we can enter into another round of talks. Parties can state and restate their positions. All

the while waiting lists will get longer, investment opportunities will be missed and Northern

Ireland’s voice will continue to absent from Brexit negotiations.

Or we can try something different.

For our part, it is clear another prolonged talks process is little short of a waste of time unless

there is some new thinking.

I am putting forward a common sense solution that can give us the Executive we need and

resolve outstanding issues.

I am proposing that we restore an Executive immediately. Put Ministers back into posts so

that decisions can be made and that Northern Ireland can have a government again.

But we also agree to bring forward legislation to address culture and language issues in

Northern Ireland within a time-limited period to be agreed. If we fail to do that in a way that

commands cross community support then the Executive would cease to exist.

This is an offer made in good faith with Northern Ireland and its people’s best interest at

heart.

Let’s not permit our political disagreements to get in the way of what needs to be done right

now in striking a Budget. In pressing ahead with much needed health reforms. And in

attracting jobs and investment.

Given the size of Northern Ireland and the scale of the challenges we face, we will only

succeed if we all move forward together. Agreements can only be achieved when there is

recognition that the support of both unionists and nationalists is required if they are to stick.

That is how we succeeded previously.

A winners and losers approach to discussions will only guarantee failure in both the short and

long-term. If we are to work together successfully then trust will have to be built between

the parties in the Assembly.

Just as our United Kingdom has succeeded down through the generations because its sum is

greater than its parts, so too Northern Ireland can succeed if it moves forward together.

Wherever I go in, whoever I speak to and whatever community they come from, I find that

there is an incredible commonality in what sort of society they want to see us create.

My vision is of a Northern Ireland that is confident, outward looking and, one where we work

together to build better lives for everyone. Learning from the past in order to build for our

future together.

I want us to achieve the goal of having our children educated together.

I want to reform our NHS so that it produces better outcomes for patients.

I want to create an innovative economy that benefits every part of our country and to work

with our own Government and with our neighbours in the Republic to get the best deal for

Northern Ireland as the UK leaves the European Union.

And I want us to get down to work at Stormont so that we can get on with the job that people

elected us to do for them.

In spite of the obvious political differences that still exist, the truth is that most people in

Northern Ireland want the same thing.

They have the same values. The same beliefs. And the same aspirations for themselves and

their families.

It is our job to demonstrate that the best way to achieve their dreams is a Northern Ireland

where everyone can prosper while respecting and embracing diversity.

Northern Ireland has been through some difficult times. Thankfully, things are far, far better

than they were. The peace that we now enjoy presents us with the chance to prosper as a

society. To seize the opportunities denied to so many generations. And to build on the

indisputable potential that Northern Ireland possesses.

Northern Ireland faces new challenges in an increasingly uncertain world.

Northern Ireland succeeds when we all move forward together. Just look at our brilliant

football team. They may not be the best players in the world but they have worked hard,

often played beyond themselves and have now attained their highest ranking ever. And of

course, I wish them all the best as they take on San Marino tomorrow night.

Theirs should be an example to all of us that by moving forward together we can fulfil our

potential and make Northern Ireland as great as we know it can be.

I know that things can be tough for families, for business and for communities and I

appreciate that we face a future filled with challenges. But above all, I believe in Northern

Ireland.

I believe in our people. I believe in our communities. I believe in our industry.

And I believe that by moving forward together we can make Northern Ireland even better.

Let’s get our government up and running again now and deal with our problems in parallel.

We’ve done it before. We’ve succeeded before. Let’s do it again.

And let’s get Northern Ireland moving forward together.

O’Neill rejects Foster’s overture

Jim Allister: Now DUP leader is begging SF to return to Stormont

Morning View: Foster in an intolerable position but even so SF musn’t get reward

Robin Swann: The intransigence of Gerry Adams remains in place

Stephen Farry: Both the DUP and SF could issue statements of good intentions