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The Irish language and extra funding: What’s in the Stormont proposal, and what happens next?

The DUP has said that the proposal provides for a “fair and balanced” basis to reconvene the Stormont Executive.

Edward Carson's Statue in the grounds of Stormont Parliament in Belfast.
Edward Carson's Statue in the grounds of Stormont Parliament in Belfast.
Image: Niall Carson

THE FIVE MAIN parties in Northern Ireland have been presented with a proposal that could form the basis for reestablishing the Northern Ireland Executive. 

Yesterday marked three years to the day since the Stormont Assembly collapsed after Martin McGuinness withdrew his support following the cash-for-ash scandal. 

The DUP and Sinn Féin have taken part in talks to reconvene the Assembly, but to no avail. Talks were re-established after journalist Lyra McKee was killed last year.

Last night, Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith presented the proposal to the five parties, in the hope that an Assembly can be reconvened as early as today. 

Smith has warned that if it doesn’t return by Monday 13 January, that he would call fresh elections in Northern Ireland. 

So far, the DUP has indicated that it would support the deal; its leader Arlene Foster said last night that although it’s not “a perfect deal”, that “on balance we believe there is a basis” to revive the Executive “in a fair and balanced way”. 

Sinn Féin has said they would consider the details of the proposal today. The party has been adamant that a standalone Irish Language Act needed to be included in any deal.

What’s in the deal

The Irish language

The proposal put forward by the UK and Irish governments does not provide for a standalone Irish Language Act, but does provide for many elements that an ILA would cover.

This includes the establishment of an Irish Language Commissioner “to recognise, support, protect and enhance the development of the Irish language in Northern Ireland”.

The Commissioner would also provide “advice and guidance, and introducing, supporting and monitoring the use of best practice language standards”.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Coveney said that one of the “breakthroughs” of the deal was the legal recognition given to the Irish language and the establishment of the Irish Language Commissioner.

He said he hoped that it was enough for the parties to agree to the proposal.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that there was a basis to support the proposal, as there was also provisions for an Ulster Scots Commissioner. 

More money for nurses

Additional funding is also being offered as part of the proposal – including healthcare funding to address the Northern Ireland nurses’ pay dispute.

The nurses had been due to strike today over pay conditions, best illustrated by the fact that they are paid less than their counterparts in Great Britain. 

The proposal says that it will be “providing additional funding for the Executive in 2020/21 to give the Executive time to place Northern Ireland’s finances on a sustainable footing, and address its priorities, such as delivering parity with England and Wales for nurses’ pay – bringing an end to the ongoing nurses’ pay dispute”.

There will also be funding to support mental health services in Northern Ireland over the next three years, and increased funding for capital infrastructure projects, including:

  • Narrow Water bridge
  • ‘Better Connecting Dublin and Belfast’ strategy
  • Funding for the Medical School in Derry.

Reform of Petition of Concern

The Petition of Concern is a notice signed by at least 30 MLAs and presented to the Speaker. It usually expresses concern about a motion before the Assembly.

If the Speaker rules that the petition of concern should apply to a motion, the vote will require cross-community support.

This type of majority could be either of two things: parallel consent, requiring over 50% support from designated unionists and nationalists; or a weighted majority, meaning at least 40% unionists and nationalists, and 60% overall.

The petition of concern mechanism was used by the DUP on a vote for same-sex marriage, which the party opposes.  

Speaking on Morning Ireland, Coveney said the petition allowed “a minority in the Assembly to block legislation”, and so it has been reformed in the proposal: 

The parties have agreed that the use of the Petition of Concern should be reduced, and returned to its intended purpose.
The parties will publicly commit to tabling or supporting Petitions of Concern only in the most exceptional circumstances and as a last resort, having used every other available mechanism.

Emma DeSouza

The UK Government said it would “change the rules” governing how the people of Northern Ireland bring their family members to the UK.

This is in response to the DeSouza case, where a UK tribunal ruled that Derry-born Emma DeSouza was legally British, despite identifying as Irish from birth and having an Irish passport.

The issue came to light when Emma’s US husband Jake applied for an EEA residence card through the UK government to live in Northern Ireland. It argued that because DeSouza was British, and not Irish, her husband couldn’t apply for the EEA card, which doesn’t include the UK.

The proposal says that the change would mean that “eligible family members of the people of Northern Ireland will be able to apply for UK immigration status on broadly the same terms as the family members of Irish citizens in the UK”.

This immigration status will be available to the family members of all the people of Northern Ireland, no matter whether they hold British or Irish citizenship or both, no matter how they identify.

What’s next?

Smith has invited the Speaker to reconvene Stormont today, in the hope that the parties will have agreed to the proposal.

The DUP has already agreed to the proposal as published, and Foster has said that they are ready to attend the Assembly today if the other parties agree to the same. “We stand ready to be a part of that.”

When Coveney was asked if it’s possible for the parties to change parts of the published proposal, he said: “We have effectively been changing this document since mid-summer,” adding that it’s been changed right up until yesterday evening. 

“If the parties look for positives in this deal, there’s plenty there… and if parties look to find negatives they will find this too because there are a lot of [contentious issues covered].”

When asked whether the deadline of Monday to revive the Stormont Assembly could be extended, Coveney said that “the straight answer to that question is no”

The legislation giving powers to civil servants runs out on Monday, he said, so if there’s no deal and no Executive in place by Monday, there will be Assembly elections. 

Speaking to reporters this morning, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the talks process is “at a very sensitive point”, adding that he spoke to Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald this morning.

“So I think there is a real chance that today or if not by Monday, we can have the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive back up and running again,” he said.

“I’d really appeal to all of the parties now to sign up to the agreement, to come on board, to have the Assembly meeting again to have the Executive up and running and crucially to have the North-South ministerial Council, operating again, so we can press ahead with those are really important North-South cross-Border projects like the A5 road to Derry and Letterkenny like the Ulster canal, the cross-Border greenways , upgrading the train line between Dublin and Belfast, building University in Derry and tying that in with Letterkenny, and also cross-Border co-operation around health.”

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