Northern Ireland

DUP's Christopher Stalford calls for end to NI 'culture war'

Christopher Stalford
Image caption DUP MLA Christopher Stalford was on the panel of BBC Radio Four's Any Questions programme

A Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) politician has said there must be an end to the "culture war" if Northern Ireland society is to move forward.

Christopher Stalford made the comments when he was asked about Sinn Féin's demand for an Irish language act.

"We need to stop using culture as a stick to poke each other with," the DUP MLA told the BBC's Any Questions show.

But Sinn Féin's Declan Kearney said the DUP's treatment of Irish culture had contributed to the crisis at Stormont.

Disagreement over legal protection for the Irish language is just one of the issues which has led to deadlock in talks aimed at restoring power-sharing at Stormont.

Sinn Féin wants a "stand-alone" Irish act, but the DUP has suggested a hybrid act which would also provide legal protection for Ulster Scots.

"An Irish language act is pivotal to ensuring that we close a deal, but it needs to be set in the broader context of the rights and the equality agenda," Mr Kearney said.

'Anti-equality axis'

Sinn Féin has warned that the Conservative government's parliamentary deal with the DUP has made the prospect of a deal less likely.

The party has complained that the Downing Street agreement had "deepened DUP intransigence" and emboldened its socially conservative views.

"At this particular point in time, the Tories and the DUP effectively represent an anti-equality axis in the north," Mr Kearney said.

He said that during the talks, the DUP had not moved on a number of issues, including an Irish language act, same-sex marriage, a Bill of Rights and measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.

An Any Questions audience member asked the panel: "Why are Sinn Féin pushing for an Irish language act, as opposed to a more inclusive culture act, involving other languages spoken in the province?

"After all, there are more Polish speakers on the island of Ireland than there are Irish speakers."

Image caption Radio 4's Any Questions was broadcast from the Braid Arts Centre in Ballymena on Friday night

In his reply, Mr Stalford said: "As a society, moving forward, I believe that what we need to do is we need to take the heat out of culture.

"We need to stop using culture as a stick to poke each other with and we need to create a society where people feel free to celebrate their culture, to affirm their identity and I'm personally up for that."

'Culture war'

The South Belfast MLA said he represented one of the most diverse constituencies in Northern Ireland.

"We have more than 100 different nationalities living in my constituency.

"I want us to get to a situation where we take the heat out of culture and we stop fighting a culture war in Northern Ireland because its not in the interests of any of us."

Mr Stalford also defended his opposition to same-sex marriage, and said it was partly influenced by his Christian faith.

"To be a supporter of traditional definition of marriage is, at times, to open yourself up to being called a religious zealot, a Bible basher, a fundamentalist, a dinosaur - all these sorts of the things.

"The language that's been used by people who share my view, towards others who don't, has also been inappropriate and wrong."

He said the tone of the same-sex marriage debate had been "ugly and unpleasant".

"I think we just, frankly, in terms of this discussion, could do with being a bit less screechy at each other."

Mr Kearney reiterated the importance of securing a "rights-based" approach to the outstanding issues before Sinn Féin would return to government.

He also accused the government of reneging on a previous agreement to protect the Irish language, struck 10 years ago with the then Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"Delivery on an Irish language act needs to be seen in the context of delivery on a swathe of agreements which to date have never been delivered upon," Mr Kearney said.

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since January, when the coalition led by Sinn Féin and the DUP collapsed after a green energy scandal.