After weeks of hardening positions from the DUP and Sinn Fein, Stormont sources last night indicated a “definite shift” in DUP-Sinn Fein relations over the last 48 hours.
Private talks between the two parties continued yesterday at Stormont Castle, with no public statement issued by either party on what was discussed.
Last night the DUP insisted that its opposition to stand-alone Irish language legislation had not weakened and that it still opposed “one language or culture dominating another”.
Senior DUP figures have privately acknowledged that many of their supporters are vehemently opposed to any Irish language act.
The first hint of what could be a thaw in relations between Stormont’s two dominant parties came in seemingly choreographed statements from the DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill on Wednesday morning in which they revealed that their parties had been in private contact for several days to discuss a potential resolution to the impasse.
Then, amid rumours of shifting ground in the talks between the two big parties, the Alliance Party at short notice cancelled a briefing for journalists – which had been scheduled for yesterday afternoon – about its own proposals for an Irish language act.
The party would only say that it had pulled the event “due to ongoing discussions with other parties”.
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As recently as Sunday, DUP MP Gregory Campbell said: “Gerry Adams has emphatically stated that if there is no Irish language act, there will be no Stormont.... If we take Mr Adams at face value and he means what he says, then there will be no Stormont; it is as simple as that.”
The DUP veteran, who famously mocked Sinn Fein’s use of Irish in the Assembly with the ‘curry my yoghurt’ jibe, said it was now crucial for the DUP to determine whether Sinn Fein was prepared to set aside its “pre-condition”.
However, others from both inside and outside the DUP indicated that the party seems to have shifted ground significantly from that position.
When asked last night whether the position articulated by Mr Campbell at the weekend remained that of the party, today, a DUP spokesman told the News Letter: “Our view has not moved before or since. Our position is that we want to get devolution up and running without preconditions.
“That’s the position which virtually all of the parties, with the exception of Sinn Féin, hold to - they want to get back now.
“We’re certainly continuing in the talks...we’re not just meeting with Sinn Fein; we’re meeting with the other parties, too, to step up and see if we can make progress to getting devolution restored.”
There have been rumours that, despite Mr Campbell’s hardline rhetoric, the DUP could accept a stand-alone Irish language act incorporating a more moderate version of what Sinn Fein initially wanted such a bill to set out if the DUP could secure either separate legislation or some other framework which would be seen to benefit unionism in a cultural sense.
When asked if that could be acceptable to the DUP, a spokesman said: “The party has put forward that we don’t want to see one language or culture dominating another; that wouldn’t be a good way for Northern Ireland to move forward.
“We want to see languages and culture respected and promoted without one being advanced or elevated above others.”
It is understood that over the summer the DUP contacted other UK jurisdictions about how they implement their language legislation, meaning that the party has spent time considering the finer detail of what any Irish language act would contain.
Last week, Mrs Foster made a significant concession, setting out a compromise proposal whereby Stormont would be immediately restored and would then legislate for the Irish language within a set period.
Mrs Foster called for “a new cultural deal” and told her party: “We have nothing to fear from the Irish language – nor is it any threat to the Union”.
Sinn Fein was immediately dismissive of the offer, as was the SDLP, claiming that it had already been made. However, it was accepted by both the Irish Government and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin as a serious attempt to seek a resolution to the stand-off.
As recently as Tuesday, Gerry Adams set out a firm stance on the issue, saying bluntly: “There will be no return to the Assembly or Executive without a stand-alone Irish Language Act and agreement on the resolution of other outstanding issues.”
That hardline stance by Sinn Féin was met with relief from some DUP members who were alarmed at how far Mrs Foster’s compromise proposal went.
One DUP member told the News Letter the day after Mrs Foster’s speech that it had been fortunate that her overture had been rejected immediately, rather than it developing because she would have faced “extreme pressure from her base”.