Arlene Foster urges ‘realism’ on timeline for Irish language legislation - ‘our primary focus is on health and economic recovery’

Advocates pressing for swift delivery of Irish language legislation in Northern Ireland must be realistic that it is not a key Stormont priority amid the pandemic, Arlene Foster has said.

Wednesday, 14th April 2021, 5:55 pm
Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster appeared before their Assembly scrutiny committee

The First Minister insisted she remained committed to delivering legislative protections for Irish speakers, as part of a broader cultural package that also included the Ulster Scots/British tradition.

But the DUP leader suggested the package may not be enacted in the current Assembly mandate as originally envisaged.

Mrs Foster told her Assembly scrutiny committee that Covid-19 matters had “engulfed” her department in the last year, impacting timelines for delivering many of the commitments in the New Decade, New Approach deal.

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“Our primary focus is on health recovery and economic recovery,” she said.

The First Minister urged people to look at the whole series of outstanding commitments in the agreement that restored powersharing, rather than just the Irish language.

“I can absolutely understand why some people would rather point to the bits that they want to see delivered, as opposed to the bits they don’t want to see delivered, but there’s a whole package in New Decade, New Approach in relation to what needs to be delivered,” she said.

Asked if her department still intended to introduce language legislation before next year’s Assembly election, she said: “There has to be a realistic conversation on what we can deliver before the end of this mandate and what we’ll need to carry over into the next mandate.

“But, make no mistake about it, I am not resiling from New Decade, New Approach.”

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the outstanding commitments in the deal needed to be delivered in as “speedy a way as we can”.

Meanwhile Mrs Foster has acknowledged using “clumsy” wording in a tweet about last week’s loyalist rioting.

The DUP leader said there was no doubt those engaging in violence at a community interface in west Belfast last week were breaking the law.

In a tweet condemning the hijack and destruction of a bus during riots on the loyalist Shankill Road last week, Mrs Foster suggested the incident would take the focus off the “real law breakers” in Sinn Fein.

She was making reference to the attendance of senior Sinn Fein members at a mass republican funeral last year when tight Covid-19 restrictions on public gatherings were in place.

Appearing before her Assembly scrutiny committee, Mrs Foster was challenged on the remark by SDLP committee chair Colin McGrath.

“Of course people who riot, people who injure police officers, people who destroy their own communities, are breaking the law. That’s very clear for everyone to see.

“I hope, chair, that there’s not going to be any mischief made today about clumsy wording when I have been unequivocal in my condemnation of violence from all sides.”