In a highly unusual move, Northern Ireland’s two main centrist parties which back Sinn Fein’s key demand for an Irish language act have sharply criticised the party’s hardline stance over returning to Stormont.
The Alliance Party said that Gerry Adams’ reaffirmation that his party will not go back into Stormont without a stand-alone piece of Irish language legislation added to the perception that Sinn Fein is pursuing a “chaos strategy”.
And the Green Party expressed its frustration at the current situation by proposing an idea which for years has been most closely associated with the TUV – an end to Stormont’s mandatory coalition, which guarantees Sinn Fein a place in government.
Just last week, Alliance and Green Party figures stood side by side with Mr Adams at an event which called for an Irish language act.
Speaking in Dublin, Mr Adams said that “contrary to the bogus argument being put by some it is self-evident that Sinn Fein is fully committed to the power sharing institutions agreed in the Good Friday Agreement”.
However, dismissing Arlene Foster’s compromise proposal of agreement to Irish language legislation alongside other cultural issues, Mr Adams said that “more than soft words are required”.
He added: “So there is no ambiguity let me repeat what I said last week: 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.”
But Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry has said that Sinn Fein’s stance was now “irresponsible”.
The former Stormont minister said: “There was nothing in this speech which gave any indication Sinn Fein are willing to show any sense of compromise or any sense of responsibility towards good governance and public services. Gerry Adams’ speech did nothing to dispel the perception Sinn Fein is pursuing a chaos strategy. In fact, it reinforced it.”
Meanwhile, in a separate statement yesterday Green Party leader Steven Agnew was similarly scathing about Sinn Fein’s current stance.
Mr Agnew questioned Sinn Fein’s commitment to power-sharing devolution: “The sense is growing that Sinn Fein has no intention of going back into government.
“Their abstentionist position at Westminster is well known but the question is whether this now extends to Stormont?
“Unfortunately, such an approach does nothing for patients on waiting lists or head teachers operating with shrinking budgets.”
Mr Agnew went on to call for consideration of a move away from mandatory coalition to voluntary coalition – essentially allowing parties which can ideologically agree to form the government, as happens in most democratic systems.
Sinn Fein has always vehemently opposed that, seeing it as an attempt to exclude them from ministerial positions.
Proponents of such a system accept that it could only be implemented in line with a switch to qualified majority voting whereby something like 65% of MLAs would have to support key pieces of legislation such as the budget in order to ensure that unionists or nationalists had some brake on the other side.
Mr Agnew said that almost two decades after the Good Friday Agreement “our institutions must adapt to survive”.
He added: “Voluntary coalition is not a new idea but it’s time to look for what is possible and preferable to the current situation. No party should have the power to tear the institutions down and leave the electorate in Northern Ireland powerless.”
Last night the Republic’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, spoke to the media after meeting the parties at Stormont.
Mr Coveney said there was now a “need for compromise as opposed to holding on to hardline positions on key issues where there is a difference of opinion”.
He said that he and the secretary of state were trying to make “an assessment about how we can structure dialogue”.