Talks uncertainty as language issue raised

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Sinn Féin has said it wants to focus attention on the rights of Irish language speakers at multi-party talks in Belfast which the two governments have said are due to intensify next week.

Following a colourful demonstration by language activists at Stormont on Friday, Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill has said that the party will continue to push for an Irish Language Act.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has repeatedly insisted that unionists will not support a “stand-alone Irish Language Act”. However, there have been indications the two sides are closer than their public positions make it appear.

Ms O’Neill said that an Irish Language Act was agreed in the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement and it was a “disgrace” that it had not yet been implemented.

“There is a clear and growing demand across society for an end to the rights and equality deficit that exists in the north,” she said.

“That was the message from today’s demonstration, loud and clear. Irish-speaking children threaten no one. The Irish language threatens no one, it is inclusive and it is thriving across our island.”

An open letter sent to the 26 County Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister Theresa May demanding an Irish language act was signed by 200 prominent and high-earning nationalists from civic society. Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said the letter was a “significant reminder” that there is a clear public desire for previous commitments to be delivered.

The current talks process was called last month in a new attempt to fill the political vacuum following the collapse of Stormont in January 2017. Despite their failure to form an Executive, the British government has continued the salaries of Assembly members elected two years ago.

On Thursday, British Direct Karen Bradley and 26 County Foreign Minister Simon Coveney called for the talks process to intensify next week. Sinn Féin has said there is a window in June for talks to reach a conclusion before the election of a new British Prime Minister following the resignation of Theresa May.

But there was condemnation by journalists of Bradley after she again refused to answer questions, her fourth time to blank the media at recent press events.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) accused her of showing contempt. Ciaran O Maolain, a member of the NUJ’s national executive and the secretary of the union’s Belfast branch, told the BBC: “We all want to see progress in politics and that requires informed debate, transparency and honesty on all sides.

“For a Government minister to treat journalists with apparent contempt – refusing to take a single question when so many important issues are being discussed – does nothing to advance the political process.”

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