Sam McBride: Major change of both DUP tone and policy on Irish language legislation

Arlene Foster and Michelle Gildernew
Arlene Foster and Michelle Gildernew

Arlene Foster’s words last night immediately stood out as significant because they went beyond the customary attacks between the DUP and Sinn Fein over the summer.

Until now, much of the parties’ statements has appeared to have been about positioning each side in an attempt to escape the blame for the failure of the talks rather than indicating any serious willingness to make the compromises necessary for an agreement.

Although the DUP leader last night blamed Sinn Fein for the impasse, she went beyond that perfunctory criticism and did what she has not done before, at least in public – set out a potential solution which goes some way to meeting the key republican demand on the Irish language.

The proposal which she set out has at least the potential to be the subject of negotiations, where it could be fleshed out.

Although the delay in Irish language legislation would be a difficult compromise for Sinn Fein to accept and the addition of other cultural measures to which Mrs Foster referred would also be potentially problematic for republicans, the DUP leader is clearly signalling that she is willing to move on the issue.

It is very different rhetoric from that of February when she said defiantly: “I will never accede to an Irish language act.”

The likelihood is that Mrs Foster’s words are delivered with one eye on the public sentiment if the talks fail. But if Sinn Fein takes Mrs Foster up on her suggestion, what she has set out represents a potentially fundamental compromise for the DUP.

Mrs Foster’s willingness to accept the principle of Irish language legislation in order to get Stormont back indicates that she is prepared to take some flak her own supporters in order to see devolution restored.