Dermot Ahern: Irish Act 'agreed at St Andrews'

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Dermot Ahern
Image caption,
Dermot Ahern helped to negotiate the St Andrews Agreement in 2006

A former Irish foreign minister has said he believed an Irish language act would be drawn up by the parties at Stormont once devolution was restored in 2007.

Dermot Ahern, who helped to negotiate the St Andrews Agreement, made the comments on BBC NI's Sunday Politics.

He said that the British government agreed to the legislation but that the responsibility then transferred to Stormont.

His comments come amid ongoing talks.

One of the main sticking points in the current power-sharing discussions has been the issue of Irish language.

Sinn Féin has insisted that the introduction of an Irish language act is a critical issue if a deal is to be agreed to restore devolution at Stormont.

But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has said it will not agree to "one-sided demands" and has accused Sinn Féin of building a "barrier to the return of Stormont".

'Quid pro quo'

Dermot Ahern said that during the St Andrews Agreement negotiations in 2006, the nationalist parties pushed "the Irish and British Government for the inclusion of issues such as bill of rights, Irish language".

"The main issue was the whole issue of devolution of policing, but there were other ancillary issues that were taken care of in the ultimate draft of the agreement that the two governments signed off on," he said.

"There was always an understanding that the British government agreed to an inclusion and commitment to an Irish language act.

"But the quid pro quo would be that there would be reciprocal attention given to the whole issue of Scots-Irish.

Image caption,
Sinn Féin says an Irish language act must be introduced if power-sharing is to return

Mr Ahern said that the Irish government did not have any direct discussions with the DUP in relation to the Irish language.

"We understood that the British government would have, and that was always our understanding, that the British government were including this in the agreement on the basis that the DUP were fully appraised of what was going to be included," he said.

'Implicit understanding'

"The following May the Assembly met and I think that because there was devolution in place, I think ultimately it was understood that the parties would then bring forward an Irish language act.

"I would say it was one of those issues which was still very much the focus of Sinn Féin, the SDLP and others - and they pushed those issues.

"While the DUP would and might be able to say that they never actually signed the dotted line, there was a tacit understanding - an implicit understanding - that ultimately if they accepted the St Andrews agreement regime, they had to accept it all. Warts and all."

Mr Ahern said that there was an understanding that once parties formed an executive they would form the legislation.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
The power-sharing executive collapsed in January

"In all these types of negotiations and agreement, you really do have to dot every i and cross every t," he said.

"Perhaps, if you could cast blame against the people that were there, including myself, we should have been a little bit more perhaps specific in relation to what should be done.

"But you know, you can only do so much for politicians and people and try and lead them.

"Ultimately if they are not willing to take the baton themselves, there is not a lot governments can do about it."