DUP leader Arlene Foster has been accused of using bigoted comments to win over unionist hardliners and distract from a corruption scandal which has threatened to topple her from her position as First Minister for the Six Counties.
Speaking at a DUP election rally, Ms Foster said the DUP would never agree to an Irish language act, long sought by Irish nationalists to protect the rights of speakers of Ireland’s native language. She claimed there was a stronger argument for a Polish Language Act, and that the Irish nationalist community was like a crocodile which, if fed, would “keep coming back for more”.
Sinn Fein made light of the comments, with the party’s leader in the Six Counties, Gerry Adams quipping: “See you later, alligator”, while the party’s leader in the North Michelle O’Neill said her party was “not interested in negativity”.
However, Ms O’Neill later repeated that her party would not return to government alongside the DUP before Foster has been cleared by an inquiry into the RHI payments scandal, a process which could take several months.
The introduction of an Irish language act has been a key demand of both Sinn Fein and the SDLP going into the assembly election. It would lead to measures like the potential use of Irish in courts, an increased use of Irish in assembly debates and by state bodies, as well as the appointment of an Irish language commissioner to facilitate the use of the language.
A judicial review is currently underway over the failure by government ministers to comply with a pledge stretching back to the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.
The Irish language group, Conradh na Gaeilge, has taken this week’s legal challenge. President Coilin O Cearbhaill said: “We are talking about simple measures relating to children, Irish at home, visibility of the language; things that will make a demonstrable difference to the increasing numbers of people living their lives through Irish. The courts must act when the executive doesn’t.”
But any suggestion of a compromise on issue was firmly ruled out by the DUP leader on Monday. To loud cheers from the party’s seated election candidates, she said: “I will never accede to an Irish Language Act.”
“Since there were more people in Northern Ireland who spoke Polish than Irish, perhaps there should be a Polish Language Act as well? If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more,” she said.
Sinn Fein activists later dressed as crocodiles protest outside the DUP’s offices in north Belfast as the comments by Foster and Adams provoked a wave of crocodile-themed internet posts.
But there was also some serious criticism of the sectarian, abrasive and arrogant nature of Ms Foster’s treatment of the broader nationalist community.
SDLP assembly candidate Patsy McGlone said her comments were “rooted in the politics of division and hate”.
“For a party leader who is campaigning to be a part of a partnership government to speak so offensively about an entire community reveals the corruption at the core of the last Executive that led to its collapse,” he said.
“The Irish Language belongs to no party. It belongs to no community. It is a communal element of our rich cultural inheritance and that cannot be diminished by anyone. Today’s comments, rooted in the politics of division and hate stand in stark contrast to the opportunity to embrace cooperation and compromise for the common good that this election offers.
“Whatever happens, at the far side of the election, the need for statutory protection for Irish Language speakers is all the more important.”
Meanwhile, the erection of a new flagpole to fly a British Union Jack flag in the heart of a nationalist town has also been linked to election tensions. The flagpole was illegally erected in a space that was set to accommodate a public art work by a group calling itself the ‘British Truth Forum’.
Sinn Fein Councillor in the county Derry town of Magherafelt, Darren Totten, called the development “an attempt to sectarianise the election campaign and divert attention from the DUP’s corruption in government”.
The flag and mast have since been removed by Mid Ulster District Council. It said it took the decision over fears that the pole could pose a threat to the safety of pedestrians and motorists.
The DUP claimed the removal of the flagpole was itself illegal, but this was rejected by Sinn Fein councillor Sean McPeake.
“Putting the Union flag in the Diamond at this time is an illegal and provocative act,” he said, adding that his party had encouraged council officials to act quickly to remove the flag.
“We pressed upon council officials the need to deal with it swiftly. We are just glad today that we did.”