The prospects of an imminent breakthrough in powersharing talks at Stormont appear to have receded after an impasse over the Irish language deepened.
The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein set out public positions on Tuesday that suggested a meeting of minds on the crucial Stormont sticking point was still a long way off.
DUP leader Arlene Foster made clear she would not sign off on a stand-alone Irish Language Act – a key Sinn Fein demand throughout the 13 months Northern Ireland has been without devolved government – and also ruled out any legislation that would see gaelic road signs or workforce quotas of Irish speakers within the civil service.
Stormont’s former first minister moved to temper expectations that a deal to restore devolution is likely this week.
“I am hopeful that we will move toward devolution again,” she said.
“Whether it is this week, whether it is in a couple of weeks or whether it’s in a couple of months what I must ensure is that we have an accommodation that everybody feels content with.”
In response, Sinn Fein insisted an Irish Language Act was a prerequisite of any deal .
Party president Mary Lou McDonald told the DUP to show leadership and ignore the hard-line critics who were opposed to any settlement.
She said the region’s main unionist party had to make up its mind whether it wanted to do a deal or not.
“I am concerned that the leader of the DUP felt moved to come out and talk back to some of the very unhelpful outside noise at this time,” Mrs McDonald told RTE.
“The DUP know, like the rest of us, what is required to reach a deal – Acht Gaeilge (Irish Language Act) and indeed other rights are clearly part of that.”
Sinn Fein wants a standalone piece of legislation to protect speakers – an Irish Language Act – but the DUP has long insisted it would only countenance new laws if they also incorporate other cultures, such as Ulster Scots.
The basis of a compromise solution appears to lie in how any legislation is presented.
Sources have suggested three pieces of legislation – an Irish Language Act, an Ulster Scots Act and a broader Culture and Respect Act – could be a means to satisfy both sides.
But Tuesday’s statements indicate a resolution is still proving elusive.
In an interview with the Press Association, Mrs Foster rubbished speculation about the shape of Irish language laws that might emerge from the powersharing negotiations.
Mrs Foster said rumours about what legislation might look like were “not grounded in any sort of reality”.
“There won’t be a stand-alone Irish Language Act – we have always made that very clear, people aren’t going to be forced to learn Irish, there isn’t going to be Irish compulsory in schools, there’s not going to be bilingual signs or quotas in the civil service,” she said.
“Some of the speculation has actually caused a lot of concern right across the community in Northern Ireland and it’s important that we say that that is not based in reality.
“What we are trying to find is an accommodation and a way forward that values those people who are Irish speakers but doesn’t impinge on the lives of those who aren’t Irish speakers and I think that’s important.”
Sinn Fein senior negotiator Conor Murphy said: “However they want to describe it the DUP know that agreement requires an Acht Gaeilge.
“The DUP need to make up their mind about whether they are up for a deal or not.”
Mrs Foster also made clear that if devolution is restored she expects to be first minister of the new administration. Sinn Fein had previously ruled out her return to the post while an inquiry into a botched green energy scheme continued.
“I am the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party so therefore I will be the person that’s put forward by the party to be first minister,” she said.
The Prime Minister and Taoiseach travelled to Stormont on Monday to encourage the region’s parties to finally end the deadlock that has left Northern Ireland without a functioning government since last January.
Theresa May urged them to make “one final push” to strike a deal to salvage powersharing.
Mrs Foster said while the leaders were welcome, their presence proved a “bit of a distraction” as it interrupted negotiations. The DUP leader said the governments had been told in advance of their trip that “the deal wasn’t done”.
The DUP did not meet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Monday but Mrs Foster rejected the suggestion that recent frayed relations between the two over Brexit was the reason. She said she did not feel it necessary to meet Mr Vardakar because the negotiations were touching on matters solely related to internal matters within Northern Ireland.
Mrs Foster said language was not the only remaining sticking point, and said gaps still had to be bridged on other wrangles between the two parties.
“We have made very good progress in these last three weeks – these last three weeks has been quite intensive and we have made good progress,” she said.