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Explainer: Why the DUP and Sinn Féin can't reach a deal on power-sharing in the North

Unlikely to reach a deal anytime soon, the Northern Irish Assembly will lie empty until autumn at the earliest.

NI powersharing talks Locked gates at Stormont parliament buildings Source: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

EARLIER TODAY, DUP leader Arlene Foster said, yet again, that no agreement had been reached between her party and Sinn Féin to restore power-sharing in the North.

They’ve been deadlocked in talks for months. Deadlines have been repeatedly been missed and new ultimatums given, with the sense that both sides are still too far apart to reach a deal.

With the upcoming marching season in the region beginning soon – with the 12 July marches next week – time is fast running out for any agreement that would see the return of the Northern Irish Assembly before the autumn.

Foster said yesterday that Sinn Féin “has a shopping list that keeps getting longer” and dismissed the chances of an agreement if this didn’t change.

So, what is it that both sides want? And what is it they just can’t agree on?

What Sinn Féin wants

NI powersharing talks Sinn Féin leader in the North, Michelle O'Neill, flanked by party colleagues Source: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Speaking yesterday, Sinn Féin’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, was clear in what Sinn Féin were demanding.

She said: “What’s wrong with expecting equality for young people who wish to speak and live their lives through the Irish language?

What’s wrong with two people of the same-sex wanting to marry and spend their lives together? What’s wrong with families expecting access to inquests 45 years after their loved ones were killed?

She said that if this was a “shopping list” then it’s one she is proud of.

One of the main sticking points, the proposed Irish Language Act, is something Sinn Féin are adamant on pushing through.

As outlined here, the DUP had begun to roll back on certain funding commitments to Irish language projects under the last Assembly, and this was heavily fought by Sinn Féin.

As our FactCheck on the matter delved into, there are 104,943 people in Northern Ireland (or 6% of the population) who can speak Irish.

The legislation proposes protection of Irish as a minority language, and to give it a similar standing that the Welsh language has in Wales.

It proposes giving the Irish language an official status, enable public bodies to provide a baseline level of interactions in Irish, and legislating for Irish place names on road signs.

The proposals also cite the example of Scottish Gaelic broadcasting on the BBC, and says that requiring the BBC to broadcast more content as gaeilge would be beneficial to the region.

The BBC already offers a certain degree of content in Irish (its Twitter page has over 5,000 followers), but this would be increased under the proposals.

Sinn Féin has, also, repeatedly called on Arlene Foster to step down over the Cash for Ash scandal but that appears very unlikely at this stage.

What the DUP wants

NI powersharing talks DUP leader Arlene Foster, flanked by colleagues. Source: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

With the deal reached to prop up the Conservative government in the House of Commons in exchange for £1 billion in cold, hard cash for investment in Northern Ireland, the DUP is sitting pretty at the negotiating table.

For one thing, it most certainly does not want the Irish Language Act to go through.

It had long been thought of as being a commitment made by the party as part of the peace process but, as this FactCheck from earlier in the year pointed out, the DUP never really committed to an Irish Language Act.

In fact, it has repeatedly and persistently opposed it.

Last week, the DUP rebuked the Irish government for trying to interfere in the matter, with MLA Christopher Stalford accusing the government of “undermining its own credibility” by supporting Sinn Féin’s stance on the Irish language.

This week, Foster has alluded to the act being a particular stumbling block.

She said: “It’s a case of making sure that those who we represent also feel valued in Northern Ireland.

What we can’t have is one section of the community having cultural supremacy over the other.

The DUP’s perceived disdain for the Irish language angers nationalists, in particular, who’ve accused unionists of speaking in the language in mocking tones previously.

The DUP’s Greg Campbell, for example, made this poor attempt to say “Go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle”, saying “curry my yoghurt, can coca coalyer” instead.

Source: Broadsheet Ie/YouTube

The DUP wants to change the Irish Language Act as it currently exists and expand it to a more wider ranging piece of legislation that would include protection for not just Irish language speakers, but Scottish Gaelic speakers and other Protestant cultures in Northern Ireland.

In effect, it is unwilling to budge on the Irish Language Act and this is acting as one of the main catalysts for the current stalemate in talks.

The unionist party is also unwilling to back down on its stance on same-sex marriage.

What happens next?

Predicting what will happen next is not an easy task.

Westminster may be unwilling to impose direct rule in the North as this would be a hugely contentious issue, and could risk the peace process in Northern Ireland.

It is further complicated by the potential for a post-Brexit hard border, and a controversial deal between the DUP and the Tories to form a UK government.

With the most important date in the Unionist calendar – the Twelfth of July – coming up next week, it puts severe pressure on the DUP not to give ground against Sinn Féin.

In all likelihood, this is set to drag on for many more months if any sort of compromise is to be reached.

What remains to be seen, however, is at what point either side would say there is no point pursuing power-sharing any longer as this impasse continues.

Read: ‘What’s wrong with someone who wants to live through Irish?’ – Sinn Féin hits back at DUP

Read: DUP and Sinn Féin have just 24 hours to reach a deal – so what happens if they don’t?

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Sean Murray

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