DUP con­demns ‘un­help­ful’ May as power-shar­ing talks col­lapse over lan­guage is­sue

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Ar­lene Foster Henry Mc­Don­ald Jes­sica El­got

Talks to re­store North­ern Ire­land’s power-shar­ing gov­ern­ment col­lapsed yes­ter­day as the DUP said there was no prospect of a com­pro­mise with Sinn Féin and ac­cused Theresa May of an un­help­ful and dis­tract­ing visit to Belfast this week.

In a broad­side aimed at the prime min­is­ter, whose Con­ser­va­tives have a con­fi­dence deal with the DUP in par­lia­ment, the party’s ne­go­tia­tor Si­mon Hamil­ton said May’s visit to Stor­mont on Mon­day with the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varad­kar, had given a false sense of progress and was not “en­tirely help­ful”.

“Re­gard­less of the in­ter­ven­tion, un­suc­cess­ful as it was, of both prime min­is­ters, sig­nif­i­cant and se­ri­ous gaps re­main be­tween our­selves and Sinn Féin,” he said.

Hamil­ton’s sen­ti­ment echoed that of DUP leader Ar­lene Foster who sig­nalled on Tues­day that talks to re­store power-shar­ing were in trou­ble. Bri­tish and Irish gov­ern­ment sources had been brief­ing since the week­end that a deal to nar­row the gap be­tween the par­ties was im­mi­nent.

Yes­ter­day Foster said there was no prospect of a com­pro­mise be­tween her party and Sinn Féin. The for­mer first min­is­ter and her party have been shaken by the level of op­po­si­tion within the DUP and in the wider union­ist com­mu­nity over any deal that would in­clude a stand­alone Irish lan­guage act as de­manded by Sinn Féin, party sources said.

Foster said there were too many sig­nif­i­cant gaps be­tween the two main par­ties to reach a set­tle­ment and it was now up to Lon­don to im­pose a bud­get to al­low re­gional de­part­ments to func­tion. She said the DUP would con­tinue to aim to re­store de­volved gov­ern­ment

‘De­spite our best ef­forts, se­ri­ous gaps re­main be­tween our­selves and Sinn Féin’ DUP leader

but that her party would not ac­cept a “one-sided deal”.

“For al­most four weeks, we have been en­gaged in in­ten­sive ne­go­ti­a­tions with Sinn Féin,” she said. “We have at­tempted to find a sta­ble and sus­tain­able ba­sis for restor­ing de­vo­lu­tion. Those dis­cus­sions have been un­suc­cess­ful. De­spite our best ef­forts, se­ri­ous and sig­nif­i­cant gaps re­main be­tween our­selves and Sinn Féin, es­pe­cially on the is­sue of the Irish lan­guage.”

Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s leader in the dead­locked North­ern Ire­land Assem­bly, said her party “worked in good faith, we stretched our­selves” and in­di­cated they too had be­lieved a deal was close. “We had reached an ac­com­mo­da­tion with the lead­er­ship of the DUP. The DUP failed to close the deal. They have now col­lapsed this process. These is­sues are not go­ing away.”

The North­ern Ire­land shadow sec­re­tary, Owen Smith, said the DUP’s com­ments about the prime min­is­ter were em­bar­rass­ing. “Theresa May has been hu­mil­i­ated by the DUP,” he said. “She turned up in Belfast on Mon­day ex­pect­ing to cut the rib­bon on a new deal but the DUP had clearly de­cided they weren’t pre­pared to do a deal which would sup­port the Irish lan­guage or mar­riage equal­ity in North­ern Ire­land. In the 20th year of the Good Fri­day agree­ment, North­ern Ire­land is be­ing badly let down by the Tory-DUP axis.”

Down­ing Street played down the rift. Sources said the gov­ern­ment was hope­ful a deal could still be thrashed out, point­ing to Foster’s com­ments that restor­ing de­volved gov­ern­ment “will re­main our goal”.

The North­ern Ire­land sec­re­tary, Karen Bradley, said the gov­ern­ment now had to make some “chal­leng­ing de­ci­sions” but stressed they still wanted to de­liver a func­tional ex­ec­u­tive. “I would urge every­one to re­flect on the cir­cum­stances that have led to this, and their po­si­tions, both now and in the future,” she said.

“The po­si­tion of the UK gov­ern­ment re­mains the same. De­volved gov­ern­ment is in the best in­ter­ests of every­one in North­ern Ire­land and is best for the union. I be­lieve the ba­sis for ac­com­mo­da­tion still ex­ists. We now need to con­sider prac­ti­cal steps. In the con­tin­ued ab­sence of an ex­ec­u­tive, other chal­leng­ing de­ci­sions will have to be taken by the UK gov­ern­ment.”

The leader of the smaller na­tion­al­ist SDLP party, Colum Eastwood, said North­ern Irish politi­cians could not al­low the break­down of talks “to be the de­struc­tion of all that we have achieved”. “Equally we can’t al­low this Bri­tish gov­ern­ment or this DUP think that they are go­ing to gov­ern North­ern Ire­land on their own. That can­not be al­lowed to hap­pen,” he said.

Through 13 months of stop-start ne­go­ti­a­tions in­volv­ing the DUP and Sinn Féin, the lat­ter’s core de­mand has been the draft­ing of an Irish lan­guage act that would give Gaelic the same le­gal sta­tus as English through­out North­ern Ire­land.

Hard­line union­ists have por­trayed the act as forc­ing com­pul­sory Irish on the union­ist com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing bilin­gual street signs in and around pro-union ar­eas of North­ern Ire­land.

The whip­ping up of union­ist fears about their Bri­tish­ness be­ing “hol­lowed out” via such leg­is­la­tion has struck a chord with the wider union­ist pop­u­la­tion, one DUP source said.

The party’s high com­mand was shocked at the level of grass­roots op­po­si­tion to a lan­guage act, the source added.

The orig­i­nal rea­son for the col­lapse of the last power-shar­ing ex­ec­u­tive in Belfast was a con­tro­ver­sial green en­ergy scheme for which the mul­ti­mil­lion-pound costs to the tax­payer spi­ralled out of con­trol.

Be­cause Foster and the DUP had cham­pi­oned the re­new­able heat in­cen­tive, their main part­ners in that gov­ern­ment asked that she step aside tem­po­rar­ily from the first min­is­ter’s of­fice so an in­quiry could be held into the scheme.

When Foster re­fused to stand down, the deputy first min­is­ter at the time, the late Martin McGuin­ness, re­signed. Un­der the rules of power shar­ing, if one main rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the two di­vided com­mu­ni­ties in North­ern Ire­land re­signs from of­fice, then the whole de­volved ed­i­fice col­lapses.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MICHAEL COOPER/PA

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill speak­ing at Stor­mont yes­ter­day after the talks col­lapsed

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