Ireland’s largest opposition party, Fianna Fáil, has criticised Sinn Féin’s rejection of a compromise offer from the Democratic Unionists over an Irish language act in Northern Ireland.
The rejection of the offer has cast doubt on the resumption of negotiations aimed at restoring power-sharing in Belfast.
But the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, said Sinn Féin’s decision to spurn Foster’s proposal to restart talks and aim for compromise on language and cultural issues was “unacceptable”.
He said Foster’s statement “warranted engagement, not immediate rejection”.
Martin said: “We should remember that Sinn Féin initially collapsed the executive because of the renewable heating controversy. Eight months later the issue has now changed to the enactment of the Irish language act.
“While Fianna Fáil supports the Irish language act, we do not believe that it should be used as a political pawn, when basic services for citizens are deteriorating.”
He added: “The consequences of a stagnant Stormont are too serious for kneejerk reactions. The challenges posed by Brexit cannot be underestimated and it is in the interest of all the citizens in the north that Stormont is reconvened as a matter of urgency.”
Referring to Foster’s keynote speech to the DUP ruling executive on Thursday night, in which she called for a comprehensive deal on cultural issues in Northern Ireland, O’Neill said: “The statement by the DUP leader demonstrates they have not listened or acknowledged the reasons of Martin’s resignation.
“Establishing an executive that may collapse after a matter of months on the same issues will only fail all our people. Let’s agree to quickly conclude talks on implementation and rights – that is the only way to build a sustainable executive that will last.”
Her remarks raise serious doubts as to whether the DUP and Sinn Féin, the two biggest parties in the assembly, can reach an agreement leading to the restoration of devolution this autumn. Talks between the five main parties had been expected to restart at Stormont within the next week or two.
With the odds against the parties reaching a deal to restore a power-sharing government, it raises the prospect of a creeping return to direct rule by London-based ministers in the absence of a local administration.
Robin Swann, the Ulster Unionist party (UUP) leader, said the speed of Sinn Féin’s rejection of Foster’s offer “makes it abundantly clear that Gerry Adams’s intransigence is still in place”.
The UUP and DUP believe Adams still holds sway within Sinn Féin and is lukewarm about bringing back power-sharing to Belfast.
This month Adams said there would be no Northern Ireland assembly without an Irish language act. Such an act would protect and promote the rights of Irish speakers in the region, putting the language on a par with English.
During her speech, Foster said she did not regard the Irish language as a threat to the union or her Britishness.
“We have nothing to fear from the Irish language, nor is it any threat to the union. We have previously supported practical measures for the Irish language and we will do so again if we can reach a wider agreement on these matters. However, what we cannot and will not do is simply agree to one-sided demands,” she said.
“I have also heard from those within the unionist community who hear others speaking about respect, while at the same time they engage in a campaign to denigrate and demonise any and all aspects of our British identity in Northern Ireland, or insult the Ulster Scots community. This is not acceptable.”
The DUP leader said issues such as the Irish language “should not have a greater priority than health or education or the economy”.
Foster was the first minister in the previous power-sharing government, which broke up ostensibly because of her refusal to temporarily stand down over a costly green energy scheme the DUP had championed.