Sinn Fein welcomes Arlene Foster's 'positive' move over Irish language

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster's pledge to meet Irish language speakers to gain a better understanding of the culture is a positive move, Sinn Fein has said.

The DUP leader and former Stormont first minister said she wanted to engage with Gaelic speakers who lack party political baggage.

The move came as a DUP/Sinn Fein tussle over the republican party's demand for an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland remains one of the main obstacles in the way of a deal to restore powersharing.

Mrs Foster's remarks on Wednesday have been interpreted by some as a shift in position, given that earlier this year she vowed that an Act would never come into being on her watch.

Sinn Fein MLA Mairtin O Muilleoir welcomed her latest comments.

"Anything which encourages dialogue, which encourages conversation, which encourages increased understanding of our shared heritage, has to be positive," he said.

As the negotiations to form a new executive adjourn for the Easter break, Mr Muilleoir told the BBC: "As we move into this little time-out we should take yesterday's initiative from Arlene Foster positively, and we should also hope then that she listens carefully to the views of the Irish language community, because they are absolutely united and firm on the need for an Irish Language Act, but even more than that, they really do want to be treated with respect."

Outside the Stormont Castle talks venue on Wednesday, Mrs Foster said: "We do want to respect and indeed better understand the language and culture which we are not a part of and, to that end, over the next short period of time, I do intend to listen and to engage with those from the Gaelic/Irish background, those without party political baggage or indeed demands, people who genuinely love the Irish language and don't want to use it as a political weapon."

In February, Mrs Foster said more people spoke Polish than Irish in Northern Ireland and declared the party would never agree to an Act protecting the language.

Two months on, she said: "In terms of the Irish language, we firmly believe that it needs to be seen in the context of the whole cultural respect and affirmation of identity in Northern Ireland.

"We do recognise that there are people who love the language, who want to speak the language and be facilitated in that respect, but we also say that in respect of Ulster Scots and Orange and British identity that there needs to be respect held for those cultures as well.

"So it is about not just one side or the other, it is about mutual respect for everybody, and that is the way in which we are approaching these negotiations - to have that affirmation of identity not just for one section of the community, but for everyone who lives in Northern Ireland and we think that is a very positive way forward."