DUP minister backtracks on cutting Irish language scheme amid Stormont crisis


A Democratic Unionist minister has reversed his controversial decision to cut an Irish language initiative in the midst of Stormont's eco-boiler scandal.

Communities Minister Paul Givan's decision to cut a £50,000 bursary to pay for children to visit gaelic speaking communities - the Gaeltacht - infuriated Sinn Fein and has been seen as a key factor in the republican party's decision to pull the plug on the power-sharing institutions.

In a tweet on Thursday morning, Mr Givan said: "My decision on the Liofa Bursary Scheme was not a political decision.

"I have now identified the necessary funding to advance this scheme."

The shock development has been interpreted by some as a DUP olive branch to Sinn Fein as devolution teeters on the brink.

While the looming collapse of the ruling executive was triggered by the renewable heat incentive (RHI) affair - a green heating scandal that has left Stormont with a £490 million bill - other disputes between the two main parties have been reignited by the furore.

One was the Irish language.

Sinn Fein cited DUP "disrespect" toward the language as one of the main reasons they had walked away.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams branded Mr Givan an "ignoramus" for his original decision to cut the bursary.

The move came as Alliance Party leader Naomi Long claimed the DUP had approached a party colleague and asked them to join lobbying of Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire to postpone calling a snap election.

"They simply asked if we would be willing to work on a cross-party basis to request to the Secretary of State that, rather than have an election, he suspend the institutions so we could have talks," she said.

Martin McGuinness's decision to resign as deputy first minister on Monday lit the fuse on Stormont's implosion. His departure forced DUP leader Arlene Foster from her role as first minister and triggered a procedural chain of events that will end with the calling of an election on Monday, if Sinn Fein does not reappoint a deputy first minister by then.

After Monday's meltdown, the DUP and Sinn Fein had also been at odds on whether mitigation payments to support households losing out under the Government's so-called "bedroom tax" could be paid.

Mr Givan claimed they could not without the approval of the now paralysed executive, but Sinn Fein finance minister Mairtin O Muilleoir insisted Mr Givan did have the authority.

In another tweet on Thursday, Mr Givan said: "Continuing to work with officials on finding a solution on bedroom tax."

Sinn Fein Assembly member Barry McElduff said Mr Givan had been forced to reverse a "disgraceful decision" due to "public outrage".

"The decision to cut the Liofa bursary of £50,000 for disadvantaged children was disgraceful," he said.

"While this reversal is welcome, it is a decision that should never have been taken.

"The DUP has demonstrated contempt for the Irish language and that must change.

"The rights of the Irish language speakers need to be recognised and respected."

Mrs Foster has offered to hold talks with Sinn Fein to avert an executive crash.

While Mr McGuinness has indicated a willingness to meet Mrs Foster to discuss the crisis, Sinn Fein has ruled out a substantive negotiation process ahead of an election.

Unless the republican party changes tack, Northern Ireland is destined to return to the polls, less than a year after the last Assembly election.

Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party, accused Mr Givan of appeasing republicans.

"The humiliating climbdown of Paul Givan is a warning to all unionists," he said.

"Why was the money not there before Christmas but suddenly available when the DUP are desperate to avoid an election?

"Did he find it down the back of a boiler?"

He added: "What else will they roll over on after an election to get their jobs back?"

Mr McGuinness's decision to walk away after 10 years of sharing power with the DUP came in response to Mrs Foster's refusal to stand aside to facilitate a probe into the ill-fated RHI - the so-called "cash for ash" scandal.

The DUP leader oversaw the doomed energy scheme during her time as economy minister.

She had repeatedly rejected Sinn Fein's demands to step down temporarily pending the outcome of a preliminary investigation.

The state-funded RHI was supposed to offer a proportion of the cost businesses had to pay to run eco-friendly boilers, but the subsidy tariffs were set too high and without a cap, so it ended up paying out significantly more than the price of fuel.

This enabled applicants to "burn to earn" - getting free heat and making a profit as they did so.

Claims of widespread abuse include a farmer allegedly set to pocket around £1 million in the next two decades for heating an empty shed.

Mrs Foster has announced plans for a public inquiry into the RHI affair, while her party colleague, Economy Minister Simon Hamilton, has sent proposed measures to slash the £490 million bill to Minister O Muilleoir for consideration.

Sinn Fein has been sceptical of both DUP initiatives.