Arlene Foster has emphatically denied the DUP had even considered agreeing to an Irish language act, despite the contents of a draft talks document appearing to indicate progress towards greater legal protection.
Speaking after meeting Prime Minister Theresa May in London, the DUP leader said the latest claims – arising from papers leaked to journalist Eamonn Mallie – didn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Both the DUP and Sinn Fein have been unable to reach a deal on a number of issues that would allow for the restoration of power-sharing at Stormont.
The greatest stumbling block has been Sinn Fein’s demand for a stand-alone Irish language act to grant various rights and entitlements to Irish speakers. The DUP has repeatedly stated that a stand-alone act would not be acceptable.
The leaked document contains a section on language provision with plans for three separate bills – covering Irish, Ulster-Scots and the importance of respect and tolerance.
However, the most contentious sections of the document are contained within square brackets, indicating that those plans were dependant upon final agreement.
Had the deal been finalised, a commissioner to oversee adherence to any new Irish language obligations placed on public bodies would have taken a major step towards being established.
Mrs Foster said the leaked document was “only one of a number” of papers being circulated.
“We weren’t contemplating bringing in an Irish language act, and I couldn’t be clearer in relation to that, and I think you know that if you look at the so-called draft agreement,” she told Sky News.
“That is only one of a number of documents that were circulated, and the important thing is that we now reflect on where we got to in relation to all of those issues,” Mrs Foster added.
Following a separate meeting with Mrs May in London, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said she feared “entrenchment and drift” in efforts to resurrect the devolved institutions after the 13 months hiatus.
“We can only surmise from the meeting with the British prime minister that the government does not have a plan ... for carving a path to the restoration of the institutions,” Ms McDonald said.
“Any political vacuum is extremely dangerous. I fear drift, I fear entrenchment, I fear that those elements who were likely never really up for a deal will dig their heels in further and are further emboldened,” she added.
UUP leader Robin Swann has repeated his call for the DUP to publish the talks documents in full.
“Sinn Fein are saying one thing on the document and the DUP are saying another. Although depending on who you are talking to from the DUP that swings dramatically from claiming credit for co-authorship of parts to denying its existence,” he said.
“This is the opportunity for the DUP to nail this down once and for all. Publish the full document, including the legislation and provide the public with transparency,” Mr Swann added.