Northern Ireland

Stormont talks: Irish language act 'red lines' to the fore

Arlene Foster
Image caption DUP leader Arlene Foster spoke to the media at Stormont on Friday afternoon

The DUP is seeking a "fair and balanced deal", according to party leader Arlene Foster, as talks to break Northern Ireland's political deadlock continue.

Discussions between the five main parties resumed on Thursday after being paused over the Christmas holidays.

On Friday, Sinn Féin's deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said there would be an Irish language act as part of any deal to restore Stormont.

However, Mrs Foster said Mrs O'Neill was repeating her "red lines".

"I would prefer to look for common ground to where we're going for the executive," she said.

"We want to see a fair and balanced deal, one that respects everyone's culture, everyone's identity in Northern Ireland."

Mrs O'Neill was responding to questions as to whether Irish language legislation would be a standalone act or part of a broader cultural act, which includes provisions for Ulster Scots.

Image caption Sinn Féin's deputy leader has said an Irish language act will be part of any deal to restore Stormont

Devolved government has been inactive since January 2017, when the DUP and Sinn Féin split in a bitter row., and previous rounds of talks have collapsed over the Irish language issue.

Parties have until 13 January to reach agreement or a new assembly election could be called.

"What we need to see is a package of measures and public confidence to be generated to deliver good politics," Ms O'Neill added.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said his party had been "frozen out" on talks over the Irish language by the two governments and the DUP and Sinn Féin, but underlined that there needed to be a "sense of urgency" to the talks ahead of planned strikes health workers next week.

Image caption SDLP leader Colum Eastwood questioned the level of urgency in the talks

"There's lots of talk about the 13 January being a deadline, but I think the deadline is actually next week when nurses and low-paid health workers go on strike."

He added: "What we do here is we wait for the very last minute, then start to negotiate. I think that's wrong, we all know what the issues are, it's the same issues from the last three years.

"We're having lots of meetings but are we having real negotiations? I'm not sure."

Alliance Party MLA Kellie Armstrong said it had been a "slow, frustrating day".

"We're frustrated at each other but we're not fighting. We're looking at detail. There's been some very, very proactive and positive conversations happening between parties but we're not just there yet."

It is understood Friday's discussions focused on a future programme for government and sustainability of a future executive.

Image caption Irish language group Conradh na Gaeilge said it was extremely disappointed that a meeting with Julian Smith had been postponed

Civil servants were also expected to be in attendance.

Irish language group Conradh na Gaeilge said it was "extremely disappointed" after a meeting between representatives and Secretary of State Julian Smith was postponed 10 minutes before it was due to happen.

They said they have proposals that can move the issue of the Irish language on in the talks but that Mr Smith "has to be willing to meet with us to hear those arguments".

Image caption UUP leader Steve Aiken said he was not going to give "any false optimism"

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Steve Aiken said there was the "possibility of achieving a deal" but he was not going to give "any false optimism".

"We must have accountable, responsible and effective government going forward," he added.

In a tweet on Thursday evening, Tánaiste (Irish Deputy Prime Minister) Simon Coveney said things were moving on but there was "still work to do".

Conversation on Thursday's talks centred on the reform of the petition of concern, the assembly's controversial veto system.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said his party was in favour of reforming and retaining it but, on Friday, Sinn Féin's Alex Maskey said all the parties had agreed there was a need for the petition of concern and all except the DUP were in agreement on how to reform it.

"The DUP don't subscribe to that as yet," he said.

Before the talks were paused before Christmas, Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said the parties and the British and Irish governments were "very close" to a deal.

But he added not all parties were "on board".

Why is the talks deadline 13 January?

Since Stormont collapsed, civil servants have been running day-to-day operations - but have needed Westminster to pass some legislation for some areas they do not have powers over.

In July, the government extended a law that gives civil servants flexibility to take certain decisions, but that runs out on 13 January 2020.

The government then has two options if devolution is still not restored: bring forward another new bill to push back the date or call a fresh assembly election.

In the past, it has opted to pursue legislation but the current Secretary of State Julian Smith has insisted he will call another poll if the parties do not reach a breakthrough by 13 January.

What are the stumbling blocks?

After power sharing fell in January 2017, Sinn Féin said it would not go back into an executive with the DUP, unless legislation for an Irish language act is implemented.

The language is seen as important to the wider nationalist community, and a small number of unionists, as a symbol of identity - but in turn, it has been vigorously resisted by unionist parties.

In February 2018, it appeared a deal was about to be brokered - but it collapsed at the last moment, and the two parties disagreed on the content of the proposed agreement text.

Irish language is certainly an issue in the current talks, but it is understood the main bone of contention relates to reforming the petition of concern.

The DUP has said it will not allow "cherry picking" of the assembly mechanism - but other parties have put forward proposals to change how it operates.

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