Arlene Foster has indicated she will meet with “people who genuinely love the Irish language” though she said her willingness to engage with Irish speakers was not a concession to Sinn Fein demands.
Sinn Fein’s desire for the implementation of an Irish Language Act has proved to be one of the main sticking points as talks at Stormont yesterday stalled for a second time since the March election.
Addressing the media at Stormont yesterday DUP leader Mrs Foster said: “We do want to respect and indeed better understand the language and culture which we are not a part of and to that end over the next short period of time I do intend to listen and to engage with those from the Gaelic/Irish background, those without party political baggage or indeed demands, people who genuinely love the Irish language and don’t want to use it as a political weapon.”
When asked if this was a concession to Sinn Fein demands, she said it was not.
She said her party have been engaged in discussions around “respect and facilitation of each other’s cultural identity”, adding: “There should be no hierarchy of cultural rights in Northern Ireland and we’d be advocating strongly on behalf of the Ulster Scots community and the loyal institutions and those that principally identify with the British Identity here in Northern Ireland.”
Failure to form a new powersharing executive by early May will force another snap election or a return to direct rule, Secretary of State James Brokenshire warned yesterday.
He issued the ultimatum as a second deadline to reach a deal fell by the wayside.
Mr Brokenshire had effectively given parties until Good Friday to find consensus, but with no sign of an agreement on the horizon he shifted the timetable once again.
“I believe that the outstanding issues between the parties are surmountable, but if no executive is formed by early May, I will need to take further steps to ensure Northern Ireland has the political stability it needs,” he said.
Of the latest failure to reach an agreement Mrs Foster said: “I think there’s been quite a good engagement and obviously the secretary of state believes there has been some movement in respect of these talks otherwise he would have moved in a different fashion.
“He believes there is room to finish this off and actually get a deal in relation to the restoration of devolution.”
Devolution first crashed in January due to the fall out over the RHI scheme.
The subsequent snap election campaign laid bare a series of other disputes dividing the DUP and Sinn Fein, including legal protections for Irish language speakers and the ongoing ban on same-sex marriage.
Sinn Fein is also at odds with the UK government on stalled mechanisms to deal with legacy issues.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson who has been the DUP’s senior negotiator said Sinn Fein’s desire for a return to devolution remained in doubt.
He said: “There are big questions about the willingness of Sinn Fein to get Stormont up and running again. Whether or not they are aiming for an election I can’t say.
“Another election won’t solve anything. It’s the last thing people want.
“As a party we want to see political stability. The people of Northern Ireland want political stability.
“I hope Sinn Fein will reflect on that over Easter.”
When asked what he thought would happen if no agreement was reached, Sir Jeffrey said: “Listening to the government direct rule would be the most likely outcome.”
UUP’s Tom Elliott felt it was for the best that talks were being put on hold. He said: “There’s not much real enthusiasm. Unfortunately I think some parties are just going through the process of engaging in talks for the sake of it with no real intention of getting an outcome.
“Sinn Fein certainly don’t give us that impression that they want to see the executive up and running again. They’re putting red lines down and it almost gives me the impression they’re just going through the motions.
“It may be they want to have another election, but I have no idea what their strategy is. It doesn’t seem to be to have the assembly and the executive up and running in the short term.
“I don’t see an agreement being reached. I think Mr Brokenshire is going to have to make some decisions on our future.”
He continued: “A lot of the focus has been around Sinn Fein’s demands, but other party have demands also.
Mr Elliott said the definition of a victim was one of the issues his party want to see addressed.
He went on to say there was no need for an Irish language Act as the Flags Identity Culture and Traditions commission is already set up under the Stormont House agreement.
See Morning View, page 20