Sinn Fein has insisted that it is not demanding that 10% of entrants to the civil wervice must be Irish speakers – despite that figure being in a document which the party gave to other parties at the talks.
The issue erupted on Wednesday morning when for the first time a party to the talks publicly set out some of the detail of what Sinn Fein is allegedly demanding should be in an Irish language act.
An Irish language act appears to have become Sinn Fein’s key demand in the talks – which were paused on Tuesday – and Gerry Adams’ party has rejected a proposed DUP compromise which would see a ‘languages act’ that also incorporates legal protection and further public spending on Ulster-Scots.
Speaking on Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme, Alliance Party negotiator Kellie Armstrong said that the DUP and Sinn Fein had “painted themselves into opposing corners and they’re finding it very hard to come back from that”.
The Strangford MLA said that her party saw a stand-alone Irish language act as “being important”.
“We agreed with Sinn Fein that there should be a language act ... the Irish language act was about respect. What Sinn Fein were asking for, we felt, was a bit more than we would have liked. However, there was an opportunity for the DUP to accept what could have been on the table.”
When asked if Sinn Fein’s demands were excessive, she said: “Not excessive, but they were asking for the sun, the moon and the stars to happen immediately.
“Some of the things it would take a long time for others to come to the table and accept – that’s not the best way to do negotiations.
“One of the asks was that ... the recruitment of civil servants would need to include 10% of Irish speakers; that’s not particularly credible at this stage.
“It may well be in the future once the Irish language act is in and Irish is allowed to happen that that may naturally happen but to demand that is not appropriate.”
She added: “Another example would be to force everywhere to have dual languages on road signage. That’s not particularly helpful in areas where there is an objection to the Irish language. It’s about being appropriate and that’s what was missing from a lot of our negotiations.”
The issue then arose again several hours later on Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme, with Ms Armstrong saying that Sinn Fein had put forward proposals based on those of Irish language lobby group Conradh na Gaeilge which explicitly stated that “10% of those who are appointed should have both spoken and written Irish in the future”.
Sinn Fein’s Mairtín O Muilleoir responded that it was “a shame that we are into discussing the detail of negotiations”.
He went on to say: “Kellie’s contention is fake news. There is no document. There will not be a document where Sinn Fein call for 10% of all public employees to be Irish speakers.”
Ms Armstrong then said: “You yourself said that you thought that Sinn Fein would resile back from that position ...”
Mr O Muilleoir said: “No, No. Well, Kellie, you’re going to have to go back into your memory banks a bit further because Sinn Fein has never had that position so we wouldn’t be resiling from it.”
He said that he wanted a “strong” act, an act which was stand-alone and one which included a commissioner but one that was “prudent, pragmatic and practical”.
The former finance minister went on to say that it would breach fair employment law to insist that anyone has to speak Irish before being employed in most civil service roles.
Mr O Muilleoir also said Sinn Fein was asking for some road signs to be in Irish – but not all road signs.