Political news

Jonathan Powell: Irish language protection agreed in 2006

Former Downing Street Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell speaking at the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference in the Europa Hotel. Picture by Mal McCann
David Young, Press Association

NEGOTIATIONS that paved the way for the first Sinn Féin/DUP-led devolved government produced a very clear agreement to protect Irish language speakers, Jonathan Powell has said.

Tony Blair's former chief of staff said his memory of the talks leading up to the 2006 St Andrews Agreement was that, from the British government's perspective, consensus had been reached on the language issue.

An impasse between the DUP and Sinn Féin over a standalone Irish language act is one of the main stumbling blocks to the restoration of powersharing at Stormont.

Sinn Féin claims a commitment was made in the St Andrews Agreement but the DUP insists the annex that refers to an Irish language act represents a side-deal between the government and republicans.

Mr Powell, who visited Belfast yesterday, told the Press Association: "I know how vexed a political point that is here now, but I'd have to say that my memory of the negotiations is very clear that we, the government had agreed to the Irish language issue.

"Now the DUP will have to interpret what happened in the negotiations in their way, but it was very clear that was agreed there as far as we were concerned."

Mr Powell said any resolution to the current wrangle on the language issue would have to factor in the views of both unionists and republicans.

"It seems to me that on the republican side, the nationalist side, they are very dug in on this issue, so something will have to be done about this if they are going to find a solution."

Meanwhile, the diplomat, who now works in conflict resolution in war zones across the world, savaged the British government's handling of the Brexit negotiations, accusing it of tabling "laughable, fantasyland" proposals.

Mr Powell claimed the process has been handled "pretty appallingly" and questioned whether any time was spent preparing in the year prior to negotiations with the EU starting in earnest.

During his address to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) in Belfast yesterday, Mr Powell was asked to assess the performance of the UK's negotiators on Brexit.

He referred to the "extraordinary metaphor" of seeing Brexit Secretary David Davis sitting at the negotiating table with EU counterparts in July with no documents in front of him.

"We have allowed the EU to set that negotiation and then, when we did produce papers during the course of the summer, frankly they are laughable, if you read them they are complete fantasyland," he said.

"The ones for example that refer here to Northern Ireland are making proposals that are completely out of the question - there is no way they can work."

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