An Ulster Unionist MLA has urged the DUP and Sinn Fein to shelve discussions over an Irish language act and revisit the issue later in the year.
The DUP and Sinn Fein continue to tussle over the republican party’s demand for statutory protection of the Irish language, which remains one of the main obstacles in the way of a deal to restore power-sharing.
While Sinn Fein and many Irish language groups have insisted that only a ‘stand-alone’ Irish language act would be acceptable, some leading DUP figures – including former leader Peter Robinson – have suggested that a ‘culture act’, encompassing both Irish and Ulster Scots, might be an appropriate compromise.
But UUP MLA Roy Beggs has said the issue should not be a priority for the parties, adding that other matters such as hospital waiting lists and pressures on school budgets should be much higher on the agenda.
The East Antrim MLA urged the two main parties not to take any firm decision on an Irish language act until a body set up to examine cultural issues has completed its work.
Mr Beggs said there was “no need to rush into anything”, as the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition is currently exploring the issue.
The commission, set up under the Stormont House Agreement last year, has been tasked with coming up with a series of proposals to help bring some resolution to these contentious matters.
The 15-strong panel is due to publish a full report by the end of the year.
Mr Beggs said: “This commission should be allowed to complete its work and present its findings before any rash decision is made.
“Rather than being forced to come up with a solution in the current round of talks at Stormont, the sensible course of action would be to allow the commission reach an outcome and then move forward from there.”
Mr Beggs branded Sinn Fein “irresponsible” for using the Irish language issue as a red line in the current negotiations at Stormont.
And he also hit out at the DUP, accusing the party of having “ramped up” tensions surrounding the Irish language.
He added: “The DUP’s previous disregard for the language and the lack of respect towards others has heightened the situation and contributed to the problem we find ourselves in.
“The removal and subsequent reinstating of the £50,000 from an Irish language bursary scheme by communities minister Paul Givan is just one example of this.”
The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition was established in June 2016 by the then-first and deputy first ministers Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness.
Seven political members were appointed and eight were drawn from outside of government.
Speaking at the time, Mrs Foster said: “The commission presents a unique opportunity to take a fresh approach to dealing with the complexities of flags, identity, culture and tradition.
“I commend those who are taking an active role in shaping a Northern Ireland free from segregation and division.”