The unionist community will have been left “stunned” by claims that the DUP was contemplating signing up to an Irish language act, a former UUP leader has said.
Attempts to restore devolution ended in failure on Wednesday, with Sinn Fein claiming the DUP had torpedoed a draft deal that would have legislated for the protection of Irish.
The mooted agreement, according to Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, would have included the creation of an Irish language commissioner, official recognition of the minority language, and the repeal of the ban on Irish in the courts.
It is also claimed that DUP negotiators were prepared to concede a republican justice minister, perhaps as early as 2022.
The DUP has rejected Sinn Fein’s assertion that a draft agreement was in place.
UUP peer Sir Reg Empey told the News Letter that many unionists will find the proposals “difficult to comprehend”, describing them as something that “no right-thinking unionist” would ever agree to.
He also warned that the alleged draft deal now set a dangerous precedent for any future negotiations to try and salvage power-sharing at Stormont.
“These issues are not going to go away and Sinn Fein will now use this as a starting point in any talks process down the line,” he told the News Letter.
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said he found it “simply unfathomable” that any unionist negotiator would consider agreeing for Irish to become an official language of Northern Ireland and facilitating an Irish language commissioner.
He added: “Only DUP negotiators can explain that. Those proposals should have been kicked into touch months ago.”
Lord Empey indicated he was somewhat sceptical of Mrs McDonald’s comments regarding the contents of the rumoured deal and called on both the leadership of both the DUP and Sinn Fein to publish the full extent of their negotiations.
“I am not going to be a torch carrier for Sinn Fein, as they wouldn’t know the truth if it spat at them in the eye,” he added.
“These claims about what the DUP was prepared to sign up to are so far removed from the rhetoric that the party had been putting out. The whole thing is bewildering and I am sure many unionists will have been left stunned.
“The only way we are going to get at the truth is if the details are made public.”
Lord Empey said he was confident that documentation relating to the negotiations would eventually be published, adding: “If it does come to light that the DUP were prepared to agree to not just an Irish language act, but also the possibility that there could be a Sinn Fein justice minister in the near future, it sets up a framework for all sorts of problems going forward.”
Speculation was rife at the start of the week that a deal to end the 13-month political deadlock was in sight, leading Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to travel to Stormont on Monday in the hopes of pushing an agreement across the line.
But the mooted deal to resolve the impasse fell apart only 48 hours later, amid an acrimonious blame game between the two main parties.
After the talks process ended in failure on Wednesday, DUP negotiator Simon Hamilton suggested the visit by the two prime ministers had hindered progress.
Yesterday, Secretary of State Karen Bradley defended Mrs May’s decision to intervene in the ill-fated negotiations, insisting it was right that the PM visited the Province.
Mrs Bradley also appeared to suggest Mrs May’s tour of the Bombardier aircraft factory in Belfast, prior to her visit to meet the politicians at Stormont, was the primary reason for the visit.
Lord Empey slammed the DUP’s suggestion that the prime minister had hindered progress and asked: “How can any unionist say that the presence of our prime minister was a distraction?
“Certainly, our contacts within the government thought that a deal was in the bag, which is why the prime minister travelled to Belfast.”
Regarding the rampant speculation at the beginning of the week that a deal was imminent, Lord Empey said the DUP “should have extinguished this notion on the spot”.
He added: “They allowed the rumours of a deal to run riot for 72 hours and made no attempt to dampen this or say that it was inaccurate.”
Some political commentators have suggested the DUP leadership was on the verge of agreeing to Sinn Fein’s demand for an Irish language act, only to become “spooked” at the 11th hour by the virulent reaction from grassroots unionism.
However, the DUP’s Gregory Campbell rejected this analysis as “totally wrong”.
He told the News Letter: “It was not the DUP who indicated a deal was doable. Sinn Fein hoped that by putting pressure on us that we would capitulate. But it backfired and they ended up with egg on their faces.”
The East Londonderry MP also rubbished suggestions of a split within the party and said there was no threat to Arlene Foster’s leadership following the failure of the talks.
l Ben Lowry, page 11