Hopes for the establishment of a new power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland have hit a last-minute obstacle, as senior members of the DUP wrote to party leader Edwin Poots urging him to delay nominating a new first minister.
A late-night deal on language legislation appeared to have defused the crisis which threatened to collapse the executive in the wake of the resignation as first minister of Arlene Foster on 14 June.
In an announcement in the early hours of Thursday, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said he was ready to put legislation protecting the Irish language through Westminster if Stormont fails to make it law by September.
The move cleared the way for the planned nomination today of the DUP’s Paul Givan as first minister and Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill as deputy first minister heading a new Northern Ireland executive.
However seven of the DUP’s eight MPs and five of its members of the House of Lords have now written to Mr Poots urging him to stall the process.
Mr Poots wrote to the party’s Westminster MPs and Stormont Assembly team telling them he will nominate Mr Givan “at the earliest possible opportunity”.
But the MPs and peers responded with an email stating that they are “very concerned about this development”.
They requested an urgent meeting “to explain the basis of your agreement with the secretary of state and Sinn Féin before any further steps are taken in this process, including the nomination of a first minister.”
The language issue has been at the centre of a row since Ms Foster was forced out as DUP leader and first minister, automatically triggering Ms O’Neill’s removal from her post.
Ms Foster’s successor as party leader Mr Poots chose 39-year-old Mr Givan to become the youngest person to lead Northern Ireland since the creation of the power-sharing executive in 1999.
But Sinn Féin made clear it would not renominate unless the DUP agreed to press ahead with legislating on the Irish language, threatening to collapse the executive.
Irish language laws are an unfulfilled commitment within the 2020 deal that restored power-sharing at Stormont.
Mr Poots has vowed to implement all outstanding aspects of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal, including Irish language legislation — but has declined to promise it within the current Assembly mandate.
Speaking in Belfast in the early hours of Thursday, Mr Lewis said: “My preference remains for the language and identity provisions of NDNA to be implemented by the Northern Ireland Executive as planned. This includes the creation of an Ulster Scots Commissioner, an Irish language Commissioner and an Office of Identity and Cultural Expression.
“I am disappointed that it has not yet brought this legislation forward in the Assembly.
“However, following my intensive negotiations with the parties over the last few days, today I can confirm that if the executive has not progressed legislation by the end of September, the UK government will take the legislation through parliament.
“If that becomes necessary, we will introduce legislation in October.”
Mr Lewis said that the move marked “an important milestone in the delivery of our shared commitments in the NDNA agreement and ensuring the future stability of the Northern Ireland executive”.
But Mr Poots told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster he didn’t welcome the intervention by the secretary of state and said there was “no necessity” for anyone to “step in”.
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said: “The British government has agreed to legislate for Acht na Gaeilge and the cultural package at Westminster. This will happen in October with Commissioners appointed by March 2022.
“We told the British government that this is the only viable option to deliver these rights as the DUP were unwilling and incapable of delivering on their commitments. It is deeply regrettable that the DUP chose to block rights in this way for so long.
“Irish speakers have been waiting for 15 years for basic rights and recognition to be delivered. This is important for Irish language speakers and for wider society because power sharing is based on inclusion, respect and equality.
“There is an important responsibility on the Irish and British government to ensure no further delay.”
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