Foster insists resolution to impasse over Irish language can be found
Arlene Foster has insisted a way can be found to craft a resolution to the Stormont roadblock on the Irish language.
The DUP leader said she recognised there were many people in Northern Ireland who loved the language, suggesting there were even some in her own party.
In an address to her party conference, Ms Foster called for a balanced agreement – one that would respect all cultures in the region.
The impasse over the Irish language has been the central dispute in the two-and-a-half-year powersharing crisis at Stormont.
Sinn Fein has made an Irish Language Act a prerequisite of any deal to restore devolution.
The DUP has expressed a willingness to legislate to protect the language, but only as part of broader culture laws that also include the Ulster Scots tradition.
While Ms Foster used her speech on Saturday to urge compromise, she also heavily criticised her erstwhile partners in government, claiming Sinn Fein’s “boycott” of Stormont had reduced them to “glorified lobbyists posing for pictures to post on Twitter”.
“I want to see the Assembly and Executive rejuvenated and re-energised,” she said.
“We are up for that. We know that Northern Ireland works best when we work together.
“And to get a deal to bring Stormont back, there will need to be an agreement that we all can support.
“I’ve already committed more than two years ago to seek accommodation and to legislate in a balanced way for language and culture, including for the Irish language.
“Unfortunately we have had too many painful experiences of the manner in which councils particularly in the West have sought to implement Irish language policies.
“But we recognise there are many in Northern Ireland who love the Irish language and for whom it is an intrinsic part of who they are.
“So, my offer stands. If we can find a way to craft language and culture laws that facilitates those who speak the language, but does not inappropriately infringe on or threaten others, the DUP will not be found wanting.
“But overall agreement needs to be a two-way street.
“In particular, the DUP wants to see mechanisms to cultivate and grow relationships between Northern Ireland and Great Britain through all walks of life, including educational and cultural connections.
“And if Stormont is to be restored on a long-term basis that means sharing the responsibility of a fair deal. No winners or losers, everyone putting their best foot forward to provide a brighter future for all.”
Ms Foster devoted a significant section of her speech to issues of identity and culture.
She said unionism needed to be “inclusive, welcoming and embracing to all”.
“It should permit individuals to express the cultural life they choose,” she said.
“Whilst many focus on Ulster-Scots and Unionism, let me be clear, it is not incompatible to be an Irish language speaker and a Unionist – indeed there might even be one or two here today.”
At that point, the big screen on the conference stage panned onto DUP MP Gregory Campbell, who once faced an Assembly ban for refusing to apologise for parodying the language during a sitting of the legislature.
Ms Foster continued: “Because the backgrounds of Unionists are many and varied, Unionism should have many portals, and multiple gateways in.
“The inescapable fact remains that people value Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom for a wide range of economic, social, historic and cultural reasons.
“Culture can play a big part in our identity and who we are.
“Too often though in Northern Ireland, culture has been demeaned and demonised, or proven detrimental to progress here.
“Northern Ireland is rich in different cultures, and we need to embrace and cherish them in a manner that threatens no one.
“Those who seek to engage in a cultural war engage in a zero-sum battle. Northern Ireland is big enough to accommodate everyone’s culture. Indeed as unionists, it is in our long-term strategic interests to ensure that everyone, regardless of their culture, feels at home in Northern Ireland.
“That is why in the talks with other Northern Ireland parties we have proposed principles around cultural expression and identity that can harness and develop all that is good about these pursuits.
“And we must use them as a force for good to educate, and help give people confidence and develop as individuals.
“We are so much more than two traditions in Northern Ireland now, and we need to give our new identities space to grow and prosper too.”