Unionists have warned the DUP against signing up to a mooted culture act in a bid to appease Sinn Fein, amid suggestions that a breakthrough in the Stormont talks could be imminent.
There have been reports that significant progress has been made in bilateral negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
According to media reports – which yesterday quoted “well-placed Stormont sources” – there has been movement on the issue of the Irish language, which has been the major barrier to restoring power-sharing.
The introduction of a stand-alone Irish language act has been a key demand of Sinn Fein since the collapse of the political institutions over a year ago.
While the DUP has repeatedly stated it would never accede to such a demand, figures within the party, including Gregory Campbell and former leader Peter Robinson, have previously signalled they would be willing to accept some form of hybrid culture act, offering legislative protection for Irish and Ulster-Scots.
Speaking to the News Letter yesterday, DUP MP Mr Campbell again indicated that if Sinn Fein was willing to accept such a concession, a deal could potentially be struck.
However, former UUP leader Sir Reg Empey has urged the DUP not to sign up to such an agreement, and warned that unionists are “dancing on the head of a pin”.
He told the News Letter: “I hope the DUP is not foolish enough to think an Irish language act can be balanced by trying to offer protection for Ulster-Scots.”
Lord Empey said he would be “totally opposed to that kind of trade off”, adding: “The two things are just not equivalent.
“It is not about whether it is a stand-alone Irish language act or whether it is part of a some wider culture act, what matters is what it sets out to achieve.
“Sinn Fein are trying to create huge division within this country. They want to transform the face of Northern Ireland to show that it is different from the rest of the UK. They want to put Irish in a superior position.
“This would only serve to destabilise Northern Ireland and further erode our position within the UK.
“Having our entire public sector geared toward dual languages is a huge change and people need to get their heads around the implications for what this could mean for Northern Ireland.”
Lord Empey also argued there was “no need” for further legislative protection for Irish, adding that commitments made in the Belfast Agreement regarding the language have been met.
He added: “Irish is well enough provided for already. In the 1998 negotiations we provided a clear pathway for respect of the different cultures, and these have been delivered.
“Most importantly, there is the European Charter on regional and minority languages, an international treaty signed by the UK which guarantees protection for languages like Irish.”
TUV leader Jim Allister also stated there was “no basis” for unionists to concede anything on Irish.
“The language is already lavishly provided for by way of its own publicly funded schools, a north/south body with executive powers and provisions for Irish street signs where there is local demand,” he told the News Letter.
“The threat of an Irish language act lies in it being rights based and that in turn feeding into the public sector.”
According to the talks insider who spoke to the Belfast Telegraph, the two main parties could be “on the cusp of one within the week”.
The source claimed a deal would involve DUP leader Arlene Foster becoming first minister, despite Sinn Fein’s previous demands that she step down over the RHI scandal.
“The bones of a deal are definitely there,” the senior talks source added.
“Of course, it could still fall apart as it did last October – and you have to factor that in – but things currently look good.”
A DUP spokesperson told the News Letter yesterday that its negotiating team has “made progress”, but added there was “still a lot of gaps and more work to be done”.
They added: “Our team have been working constructively to get devolved government restored. Northern Ireland cannot continue without ministers in place to make decisions.”