Arlene Foster 'ready to legislate' for Irish language but warns that time is running out
DUP leader Arlene Foster has said she is ready to “legislate for the Irish language” but such a move must reflect Northern Ireland’s “plurality of cultures”.
Speaking at her party's annual conference, the former first minister said she wanted to restore devolution but warned that “time is short”.
Her remarks come as fresh efforts to break the Stormont deadlock get underway after negotiations ended last month without agreement.
Secretary of State James Brokenshire, who earlier this month implemented a regional budget, is expected to meet the five main parties today.
Mrs Foster told around 400 delegates at the La Mon hotel in Co Down on Saturday that she respected the Irish language and those who speak it.
However, she insisted that respect “isn’t a one way street” and called on republicans to begin respecting “our British culture”.
“For too long they have shown nothing but disdain and disrespect for the national flag, the royal family, the armed forces, British symbols, the constitutional reality and the very name of this country,” she said.
“So we are up for respect. And we’re up for rights... What we oppose is using the cloak of rights as a Trojan horse designed to break unionists.”
Mrs Foster said some progress had been made during months of negotiations but the final deal needed to be “balanced”.
“We will not be party to a one-sided arrangement that rewards intransigent behaviour."
The Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA added that the talks could not continue indefinitely.
“Time is short and those in Sinn Féin blocking the restoration of local decision-making need to decide whether they want to do business with us or have direct rule ministers in place,” she said.
“I still believe that devolution is the best way to govern Northern Ireland but to do that in a way that delivers for all of our people we need serious partners in government.”
Sinn Féin said at the weekend that it is determined to reach agreement to restore the power-sharing institutions but “they must operate on the basis agreed 20 years ago”.
Mrs Foster told the conference how in the aftermath of the confidence and supply deal cut with the Tories at Westminster in June that there was now “unprecedented interest” in the DUP.
She said March’s assembly election, in which Sinn Féin came within 1,200 votes of becoming Stormont’s largest party, was a “wake up call for unionists”.
“We warned that republicans were cynically seeking to exploit the election as an opportunity to close the gap on unionism."
However, she said June’s snap Westminster election provided the opportunity “to register support for our precious union”.
The “momentous result” which saw the DUP take 10 seats and hold the balance of power at Westminster had put the party in an “unparalleled position”.
Mrs Foster said in negotiating the £1 billion deal with the Tories, her party had not been narrow or sectional but sought an outcome that “benefits all of the people of Northern Ireland”.
She cited the insistence on a state pension ‘triple lock’ and a universal winter fuel payment as evidence that the DUP’s “unionism doesn't end at the Irish Sea”.
“We will always fight hard for the best deal for Northern Ireland but we care about vulnerable people in Bristol and Birmingham every bit as much as those in Belfast,” she said.
Mrs Foster said she was an unashamed unionist and that the way to create a “peaceful and prosperous society” in the north was as part of the UK.
“Regardless of some of the propaganda the truth is the union is secure and no matter how many times we are told that ‘the north isn’t British’, Northern Ireland is British and British it will remain,” she said.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds also made reference on Saturday to the DUP's position as kingmakers at Westminster following the general election, saying that "looking back I don’t think it was an accident how things turned out".