Arlene Foster has backed a deal involving Irish being made an official language, an Irish language commissioner being appointed and an end to the ban on Irish in courts.
Within about 20 minutes of the 62-page draft agreement being published online late last night, the DUP leader said that the party’s MPs, MLAs and party officers backed the text, saying: “On balance we believe there is a basis upon which the Assembly and Executive can be re-established in a fair and balanced way.”
In an apparent attempt to rush the deal through before the weekend and before it comes under detailed scrutiny, Secretary of State Julian Smith last night moved to try to recall the Assembly today to endorse the deal and restore devolution.
Mrs Foster – who in 2017 said “I will never accede to an Irish language act” because to do so would be like feeding a crocodile with concessions – accepted that the agreement represented a compromise.
She said it was “not a perfect deal and there are elements within it which we recognise are the product of long negotiations and represent compromise outcomes”.
The agreement will involve a significant shift in how Assembly business is conducted, with MLAs able to make their entire speeches in Irish or Ulster-Scots and the provision of immediate translation – presumably through headsets, as happens in the EU parliament.
The ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal would see the repeal of the Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737 – the legislation which bans the use of Irish in court.
There will be a commissioner to “recognise, support, protect and enhance the development of the Irish language” and another commissioner to “enhance and develop the language, arts and literature associated with the Ulster-Scots/Ulster British tradition and to provide official recognition of the status of the Ulster-Scots language”.
There will be the creation of a “central Translation Hub” at Stormont in the finance department. There is no mention of Irish language road signage.
The DUP executive is scheduled to meet tonight but it is not clear whether it would be able to reverse the party’s decision to accept the deal if that is ratified at Stormont today.
The deal will also see a sudden move to implement the Stormont House Agreement on the legacy of the Troubles – something about which increasing numbers of former security force members have been concerned.
And it would see the military covenant extended to Northern Ireland.
However, the DUP has failed to secure a commitment that Sinn Fein could never again walk out of Stormont and demand political concessions – something which the party once said was key to resolving the situation.
And the party has also not secured any commitment on abortion, something which some senior figures believed was important.
The deal promises lots of government investment, particularly for the health service – but only if the parties return to Stormont.
Standing beside Tanaiste Simon Coveney, Mr Smith said there was a major financial package on offer from the government, which would mean health strike action would not need to go ahead if the parties restored the institutions.
Last night Sinn Fein sat on the fence with leader Mary Lou McDonald saying: “We are studying the text ... the Sinn Fein ard chomhairle will meet tomorrow to fully assess it.”
UUP leader Steve Aiken said cautiously: “We will consider this complex and far-reaching document carefully and consult widely within our party before making any further comments.”
Former DUP spad Tim Cairns said that the deal seemed to be “largely the same as February 2018 [which the DUP rejected] ... not much in return”. But republican commentator Chris Donnelly said he thought it “isn’t a deal that will sit well with Sinn Fein” with the language commissioner “a restricted role”.
Buried in the document is also an agreement that “RHI will be closed down”.
Given that the scheme has already been shut, that appears to mean that those who accepted Mrs Foster’s cast iron guarantee of 20-year payments will be thrown out of the scheme. It is not clear how they would be compensated.