DUP will never agree to Irish language act, says Foster

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Arlene Foster
Image caption,
Mrs Foster suggested Sinn Féin was like a crocodile which, if fed, would 'keep coming back for more'

The DUP will never agree to an Irish language act, its leader has said.

Arlene Foster said that perhaps there should be a Polish language act instead because more people in Northern Ireland spoke Polish than Irish.

Alluding to Sinn Féin demands, she told a party event: "If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back for more."

Mrs Foster said she was not prepared to "reward bad behaviour, and to capitulate to manufactured demands".

'See you later, alligator'

Image caption,
Graffiti in Belfast calling for an Irish language act

The introduction of an Irish language act is a key demand of Sinn Féin going into the assembly election.

Based on the 2011 Census, which asked people about the languages they knew and used (for Northern Ireland population over the age of three):

  • More people identified Polish (1.02%) as their main language than Irish (0.24%)
  • Irish is the fourth most-popular language in Northern Ireland, after English (96.86%) and Lithuanian (0.36%)
  • But given their status, the census asks further questions about Irish and Ulster Scots
  • The percentage of the population recorded as being able to read, write, speak or understand Irish was 3.74%
  • The percentage of people recorded as having some knowledge of the Irish language was 10.65%
  • By comparison 0.94% recorded themselves as having the ability to read, write, speak or understand Ulster Scots
  • The percentage of people with some knowledge of Ulster Scots was recorded as 8.08%
  • There is no information available on the census about how many more people may have knowledge of Polish but no do not use it as a main language

Any act would guarantee Irish was given the same official status as English.

That would lead to measures like:

  • The option for Irish to be used in court
  • Irish being used in all assembly debates
  • The widespread use of Irish by all state bodies, including the police
  • The appointment of an Irish language commissioner to ensure use of the language is facilitated

Asked for a response to Mrs Foster's "feed the crocodile" remark, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams replied: "See you later, alligator".

'Rewriting the past'

The former first minister said the 2 March election was "about republicans trying to re-write the past.

"Even this past week we have seen the attempts to put our soldiers and our police officers in the dock while those who maimed and murdered over the past fifty years walk free.

"Let me be clear, so long as I am the leader of the largest political party in Northern Ireland, that is not going to be allowed to happen".

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
Mrs Foster says Michelle O'Neill will be 'instructed' by Gerry Adams

She said Michelle O'Neill, Sinn Féin's new northern leader, had been "hand-picked by Gerry Adams to do his bidding in Northern Ireland".

On the subject of the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, which may cost NI taxpayers as much as £490m, the DUP leader said it was "not the cause, but it did become the excuse for this election".

"I know that the investigation into the RHI scheme will clear my name," she said.

Mrs Foster was enterprise minister when the scheme was set up in 2012; it was intended to increase the creation of heat from renewable sources.

However, businesses have been receiving more in subsidies than they are paying for renewable fuel and the scheme became highly oversubscribed.

In a statement, the UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said: "The DUP are engaged in a massive game of distraction.

'Incompetence and sleaze'

"This is the same rhetoric which they sold to the electorate last May and look where we are now.

"It is the last refuge of a party leaving behind a legacy of incompetence and sleaze.

"The DUP and Sinn Féin have been in government for ten years and people are still being called back to the trenches. We want partnership government."

SDLP assembly candidate Patsy McGlone also commented: "The Irish language belongs to no party, it belongs to no community, it is a communal element of our rich cultural inheritance and that cannot be diminished by anyone.

"Today's comments, rooted in the politics of division and hate stand in stark contrast to the opportunity to embrace cooperation and compromise for the common good that this election offers.

"Whatever happens, at the far side of the election, the need for statutory protection for Irish language speakers is all the more important."

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long told BBC News NI she did not think that Mrs Foster's language was appropriate for someone "who is going to the electorate to ask to be the leader of an entire community, and that is what the first minister's job is".