Leading article

Speaker's position and Irish language grants should not be bargaining chips

THERE is a growing sense that the DUP is preparing to put a number of concessions to Sinn Féin as part of a deal which might allow Arlene Foster to avoid standing down at least temporarily as First Minister.

Such bartering is a normal part of the political process, even if it is not a particularly edifying spectacle, and Sinn Féin will be obliged to give careful consideration to any serious proposals which are forthcoming.

However, the DUP would be particularly unwise to to assume that, as has been speculated, it may be possible to gain some additional room for manoeuvre by offering to remove Robin Newton as Stormont speaker and to review the withdrawal of grants to the Líofa programme.

Both of those issues deserve to be regarded as non-negotiable and it would be a matter for deep concern if they were instead allowed to effectively treated as bargaining chips during wider negotiations.

Mr Newton may be capable of sitting as a back bench DUP MLA but his position as speaker of the house became untenable some time ago and it is essential that a successor is nominated without delay.

He was exposed in a basic conflict of interest when his lobbying on behalf of Charter NI was followed by a refusal to allow the tabling of Assembly questions about contentious public funding to the same body.

The latest revelations in this newspaper about the full extent of his links with Charter NI, combined with his shambolic handing of last month's debate on the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) scandal, could only have sealed his fate.

There has also been enormous and entirely justified anger over the abrupt axing of the Líofa funding just before Christmas in an attempt to save 0.01 per cent of the money squandered over RHI.

The blatant lack of consultation over the move, and the crude hostility it signalled towards the Irish language sector, meant that it deserved to be abandoned long before the courts may well be forced to intervene.

It remains extremely difficult to see how Mrs Foster can avoid accepting the precedent established by Peter Robinson and stepping aside until some form of acceptable investigation into the RHI debacle in general, and the specific decisions she took, is completed.

If she really believes that sacrificing an already doomed speaker, as well as restoring essential low-level grants which should never have been threatened in the first place, can keep her in office, a suspension of our devolved institutions will be increasingly hard to avoid.

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