Irish language battle resurfaces as power-sharing talks resume in Northern Ireland

Irish language battle resurfaces as power-sharing talks resume in Northern Ireland

POWER-SHARING talks have resumed in Northern Ireland aimed at breaking the political deadlock that has been in place for three years.

The North’s devolved government has not sat since January 2017, when the DUP and Sinn Féin parted ways, unable to agree on issues such as the Irish Language Act.

Since January 2 talks have taken place between both parties as well as Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith and Tánaiste Simon Coveney.

Mr Smith also met the Irish language group Conradh na Gaeilge on Sunday, who reiterated their calls for an Irish Language Act, in line with legislation proposed in the St Andrews Agreement of 2006.

The group’s Pádraig Ó Tiarnaigh said: “Speakers of Irish, be they speakers using the language in their home, in their schools or in the community, can no longer be treated as second class citizens.”

Members of the DUP and Sinn Féin are due to resume those talks this week, ahead of a January 13 deadline which calls for the Stormont deadlock to be broken or risk a new Assembly election being called.

Over the past three years day to day operations at Stormont have been overseen by civil servants - who were permitted to take such decisions through a law extension made in Westminster in July 2019.

That extension expires on January 13 – leaving DUP and Sinn Féin members just days to find a way to work through their issues or risk the electorate heading to the ballot box.

Yet the DUP have already stated they will not be forced to accept any proposals on the Irish language that they are not happy with.

Gregory Campbell, DUP MP for East Londonderry, said: “The January 13 deadline means there will be attempts to use it as leverage to get any type of deal over the line as opposed to detailed consideration in order that a good deal is achieved.”

He added: “Whether it is one party (SF) making unacceptable demands or other parties standing side by side to accept that the unreasonable demand is met, will make no difference to us.

“Where the Irish language has a perfectly acceptable place in Northern Ireland society and is resourced appropriately, as it already is, there will not be a problem or opposition from the DUP or wider Unionism, where there is an unacceptable and unreasonable demand to elevate it above all other minority languages, whether it is SF, other parties or HM Government saying we will have to yield on this issue as it is preventing devolution returning, we will not do so.”

Party leader Arlene Foster added in a tweet last week: “Whether you’re British, Irish or N Irish, you should all feel at home in NI. No identity should be elevated above the other.
“We want a fair and balanced deal.”

However, Sinn Féin’s leaders claim they too intend to stand their ground on the Irish language issue.

Speaking on January 3, deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said: “Clearly there will be an Irish language act as part of a deal but what we need to see is a package of measures that allows public confidence to be generated again in our ability to deliver good politics.

“There is no doubt that there is a confidence issue in this Assembly and its ability to deliver. What success looks like to me is, yes, there will be an Irish language act and yes, there will be a package of measures that looks at a range of issues,” she added.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald has also outlined her intention to bring the current Stormont deadlock to an end.

“We have spent three years searching for agreement to re-establish the north’s institutions and we got there in February 2018 but the DUP walked away from that deal,” she said.

“We cannot have that scenario again - the choice is now for agreement, or elections, but the current situation cannot continue. The outstanding issues can be resolved.”