Why Foster was Forced to Fold at the Dealin’ Table – By Eamonn Mallie

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Senior DUP figures Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster continue to seek to ‘hollow out’ the substance of the Talks document that I put in the public domain last Tuesday night, a document which Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald said represented an ‘Accommodation’ between the DUP and Sinn Féin arising out of seemingly endless weeks of negotiations.

Irish Foreign minister Simon Coveney used the term ‘Accommodation’ in his address in New York on Thursday.

The DUP line of attack is driven by one fact: the leadership and its negotiators were ‘outed’ in being seen to be party to an emerging political structure in which the Irish Language was to be an intrinsic and integral part of a settlement for restoring a power sharing Executive at Stormont… An Irish Language Act was an immutable bottom line for Sinn Féin.

Mrs Foster is desirous now to distance herself and her colleagues from what she views as a toxic political template despite the fact that she and her team were witnesses to the forging of a complicated ‘suite’ of legislation outlined in the document which sets out in detail the essence of an Irish language Bill, of an Ulster Scots Bill side by side with a ‘Respecting Language and Diversity’ Bill.

Of Sinn Féin the former First Minister is conveniently pointing her finger declaring “j’accuse.”

Arlene Foster said she did not, and could not recommend to her party what Sinn Féin and the governments viewed to be an ‘Accommodation.’

That is true but she is refusing to reveal the full story – why she got cold feet and didn’t sell what the British and Irish governments and Sinn Féin accepted as an ‘Accommodation’ arrived at, after intense negotiations.

It would be helpful if Arlene Foster moved to clarify some matters:

Did she personally hand a ‘hard’ copy of the leaked document to Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’ Neill, at 6.30 on Friday Feb 9? Yes or No?

If she did, is it not reasonable to conclude she must have felt she had a certain sense of ownership of that document?

Will the DUP talks team answer some further questions – did a former DUP minister (whose name I know) forward, by email, the document published on this website to a negotiating party colleague that same Friday between seven and eight o clock?

Did that DUP functionary who received that email, in turn, forward it a short time later, to an individual in Sinn Féin?

Those who are sufficiently interested can run a message trace on these emails.

All this pointed to exchanges being at an advanced stage and the content of one of emails insinuated a rapport and warmth existing between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

An insider spoke to me about the industry and commitment he witnessed by both teams of negotiators as they went about their business in the talks.

I can incontrovertibly say the British and Irish governments, on leaving Parliament Buildings on the evening of Feb 9, believed the two parties, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party had arrived at an ‘accommodation’ mindful that issues of ‘presentation’ (the governments’ terminology not mine) were still outstanding in some instances.

Sinn Féin expected this matter to be addressed come Monday morning. That meeting did not proceed.

In the thirteen pages of the leaked document there is a consistent use of the term ‘The Parties’ have agreed, ‘The Parties’ recognise, ‘The Parties’ will ask etc.

Jeffrey Donaldson has suggested that supporting draft legislation from the languages package came from the NIO.

Sinn Féin says they agreed it “line by line” in subsequent meetings with the DUP. The Donaldson narrative will be viewed by some as an attempt to mask exactly what happened behind closed doors in Parliament Buildings.

Mr Donaldson cannot have it both ways. Speaking on BBC One NI he chose to reference the very language and process I ascribed to the negotiators to resolve outstanding difficulties. This in government parlance amounts to ‘iteration.’

In exchanges in an ‘iterative process,’ opposing negotiators have an opportunity to have areas of dispute deleted, altered or rewritten – leading hopefully to the closing of the gaps.

What undermines Mr Donaldson’s claims is the fact that this 13 page document plus annexes is so loaded with specifics page after page.

How can the Lagan Valley MP explain this at the end of such an exhaustive process?

Why had the DUP not gutted this political construct? It didn’t – because it was complicit in shaping it.

Logically if the DUP had not espoused the ‘worked up’ paper it would be reasonable to make it known that the direction of travel was unacceptable at any time during negotiations rather than walking away at the eleventh hour.

This did not happen until such time that the negotiators and the hierarchy of the DUP couldn’t withstand the pressure coming from the grassroots with anger mounting at reports of its leader accepting an Irish Language Act of some hue.

For a broad swathe of Unionists this would be betrayal and would be an anathema to them.

Edwin Poots has admitted the two parties ‘worked’ this paper. This is at variance with Arlene Foster’s version of events. She has spoken of ‘several’ documents being in play.

Very specifically in the disputed section of the document, Para 2.1 headed,

‘RESPECTING LANGUAGES AND CULTURE’ the topic opens with the following words:

‘WE’ have reached an ‘Accommodation’ a ‘Package’ of language and cultural diversity legislation. The words ‘We’ ‘Accommodation,’ and ‘Package’ are not there for purpose of ornamentation.

These words were the working out of a process involving the collectivity of the negotiators.

I will unpack the above term ‘package’ of language and cultural diversity legislation later in this article.

‘Accommodation’ was the noun used by Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald in her press conference remarks after the DUP leader declared the negotiations ‘collapsed.’

Gerry Kelly is adamant that Sinn Féin and the two governments had no warning or indication of the DUP’s intentions to abandon the negotiations.

The Media was certainly taken by surprise with Arlene Foster’s announcement delivered in a tweet in which she stated: “In our view, there is no current prospect of these discussions leading to an Executive being formed.”

Such had been the confidence obtaining on the evening of Feb 9 in British and Irish government circles about how close the parties were to closing a deal that British advisors to Prime Minister Theresa May prompted her to be at Parliament Buildings on Monday Feb 12. This in turn decided for Irish officials to arrange to have Taoiseach Leo Varadkar present as well.

I was told Downing Street called Merrion Street in Dublin to alert the Taoiseach of PM May’s plans to visit Stormont on Monday.

Dublin felt it appropriate for Mr Varadkar to be present also, the Irish government being a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.

The view over that weekend was that the outstanding issues of ‘presentation’ could be easily resolved ahead of the PMs’ Stormont visits.

On the evening of Friday Feb 9 neither government had budgeted however for an ambush in the making for an apparent unsuspecting DUP leadership.

I will address how this ‘ambush’ came into being later, in this article.

Firstly how was this DUP Sinn Féin ‘accommodation’ carved out of the intransigence on both sides?

The DUP repeatedly stated it had no red lines for re-entry into government arguing outstanding issues could be resolved ‘in parallel’ once the administration had been restored. This approach was not acceptable to Sinn Féin.

The DUP repeatedly charged that sinn Féin had a plethora of red lines as a price for the restoration of government including a demand for ‘a stand alone Irish Language Act,’ legislation for same sex marriage, a Bill of Rights, and various other demands.

Sinn Féin was consistently adamant there had to be an ‘Irish Language Act’ holding to the view that only this, would deliver ‘parity of esteem.’

The DUP negotiating team under the stewardship of Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds, her deputy, concluded the party would not be back in government UNLESS it made some gesture on Sinn Féin’s Irish Language demand, at the same time as not appearing to be capitulating to Sinn Féin. One DUP source said “The DUP had to give something.”

The DUP leadership was also mindful that many of its Assembly members were facing a bleak future with potentially the dole being the only option.

The DUP knew too, Sinn Féin has a greater capacity for hardship as history proved throughout the hunger strikes etc.

Mrs Foster and Nigel Dodds were now embarking on a highly risky strategy involving themselves in tricky negotiations with Sinn Féin and the Irish government to realise a ‘package’ of legislation which would include the Irish language.

This move was taking place against a relentless assault on the Irish Language over several years by senior DUP party figures, among them Paul Givan, Sammy WIlson, Gregory campbell, and Edwin Poots, culminating with the most offensive utterance of all deemed, to have fallen from the lips of party leader and former First Minister, Arlene Foster.

Rejecting Sinn Féin’s request for a free standing Irish Language Act on Feb 2 ‘017 in an Assembly pre-election speech the DUP leader said: “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back for more.”

The sharp growth in the Sinn Féin vote in the 2017 Assembly election is put down primarily to that ‘crocodile’ remark by Arlene Foster.

The DUP’s electoral advantage in the Assembly was reduced to just 1200 votes and Unionism was left without a majority at Stormont.

Martin McGuinness had resigned in Jan 2017 bringing the political edifice crashing to the ground because of what he called the ‘arrogance’ of his partner in government.

The DUP hierarchy continued to nail its colours to the mast in outlawing any accommodation for Irish by way of a ‘self contained Act.’

The DUP’s constituents were habitually fed a diet of negativity about the Irish language and what it would mean to their Britishness.

It was endlessly put about republicans and nationalists had one goal – the ‘gaelicisation’ of Northern Ireland with the Irish language pervading all spheres of life and at all levels of society. This proved to be bogus as is clear from the leaked document.

Same sex marriage, and dealing with the Past faded in significance and importance in the Unionist psyche according to a number of DUP insiders: the idea of Irish being compulsory in the courts, for street names, and road names left Unionism working itself up into a lather according to Unionists over the weekend of Feb. 9.

One DUP public representative told me he hadn’t ever experienced such a panic with widespread reports spreading of legislation being put in place for an Irish Language Act.

This heightened sense of Unionism being ‘squeezed’ ever more, had a deep root.

Buoyancy in nationalism could not be underestimated on the back of the Assembly election results in 2017 and its success in the Westminster elections in June coupled with the end of majoritarianism at Stormont thanks very much to the way senior DUP figures had been mocking the Irish language.

The growth in the Sinn Féin vote resulted in a ‘stop Sinn Féin’ at all costs campaign in the Westminster election. One North Belfast Presbyterian minister told me the war cry in Unionism was “keep themuns out.”

The DUP leadership exercised no discipline over their wild cards continuing to allow them to heap odium on the IRISH language.

Now the chickens would be coming home to roost at the negotiating table.

The broad sweep of Unionism had become infected by the anti IRISH rhetoric and fever.

Against this backdrop inconceivably, the DUP was now engaged in talks with the two governments and Sinn Féin on a ‘construct’ which would respect Irish and hopefully also bolster its own sense of Britishness.

Grassroots Unionism was becoming increasingly exercised in the run in, and over the weekend of Feb 9 particularly when it became clear Theresa May was coming to Stormont and Leo Varadkar was travelling from Dublin.

My colleague Brian Rowan who writes on eamonnmallie.com spelled out in an article on Sunday Feb 11 what he had heard to be going on behind closed doors: What follows is an insert from Brian’s contribution:



Brian later concluded ‘It has the feel of one and a half Irish Language Acts and one and a half Ulster Scots Acts.’

The revelation on three separate Acts drove Unionism mad with phones red hot now to homes and offices of DUP MPs and MLAs. The Draft Agreement was now in grave danger.

Emails were pouring in from constituencies all over Northern Ireland. The party leadership was now on the back foot, under siege with a crisis in full swing resulting in a number of hastily convened Officers’ meetings to take stock.

Monday morning Feb 12 was a morning Arlene Foster will want to erase from her memory.

So in what exactly had the DUP been involved in their talks with Sinn Féin and the governments?

We are dependent on the accounts of the governments and Sinn Féin for this information.



To give the DUP ‘cover’ while flirting with the IRISH language a structure had to be ‘designed.’ Such a ‘design’ was modelled, I suspect, along the lines of some EU legal instrument deployed to get around some thorny issue in the European context.

The ‘model’ or ‘design’ now in play to realise an ‘accommodation’ was clumsily summed up in this verbiage ‘The Respecting Language and Diversity Bill.’

It would essentially be framed in two Acts embracing Irish language and Ulster Scots plugged into a third Act – one framework piece of legislation labelled ‘Respecting Language and Diversity Act.’

One government source said these Acts would come into existence concurrently and simultaneously and would facilitate Sinn Féin and the DUP to both claim a ‘win.’

This was like a ‘suite,’ ‘package’ ‘crate’ of legislation or ‘compact’ of bills leading to 3 Acts.

Mark Durkan likened this design to the ‘Trinitarian Doctrine,’ or ‘Doctrine of the Trinity’ – one God, three persons – perhaps another metaphor would be a Shamrock – symbolic of the Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Reports now in circulation courtesy of Brian Rowan and others that the DUP was buying into three Acts including an Irish Language Act, were stirring the horses in the countryside as the week of Feb 9 came to a close.

However ingenious this design was there were those in the DUP who could see through it.

Some senior figures, including DUP MPs started challenging the leaders and negotiating team as to what was coming down the line.

Test: if it looked like a duck and quacked like a duck – would it be a duck or in this case, an Irish Language Act?

Was this what was at the heart of this ‘package’ of legislation – two Acts feeding into another Act giving rise to ambiguity to get around a problem?

Yes Sir – this was a ruse, or shall we call it ‘un truque’ a mechanism providing cloud cover, according to someone involved in designing the ‘Respecting Language and Diversity Act.’

One DUP MP once apprised, warned it would not fly in the DUP Unionist community – He was of the opinion the party leadership had set its face too firmly against any acceptance of Irish to now expect constituents to buy into a dramatic U turn. The issue was “toxic.”

A Belfast Telegraph upbeat article on Feb 8 was adjudged to be inspired by the DUP. This remains unsubstantiated.

Reports initially that Theresa May was coming and later, that Leo Varadkar would join her at Stormont sparked pandemonium in the Unionist community throughout the weekend starting Friday Feb 9 and this culminated in a tsunami of concern in the ensuing days with claims that an Irish Language Act would be part of a settlement.

The DUP negotiating team and party leadership had been shaken to its core against the backdrop of the reaction across the country.

The ‘accommodation’ was now dead in the water.

So where stands the party leadership today?

An MP told me “the leadership is not in danger but its credibility has been damaged.”

It would be churlish not to acknowledge the risks Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds took whatever their motives, to try to deliver a deal, in challenging circumstances.

The lesson however is ‘ignore your constituents at your peril.’

In the words of ‘The Gambler’ sung by Kenny Rogers:

“If you’re gonna play the game’ boy, You gotta learn to play it right.”



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About Author

Eamonn Mallie

I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. Desmond mcKinley on

    What it boils down to is that the DUP have bitten off more than they can chew, with their constant demonisation of an Irish language act. Indeed lots of Unionist’s and Loyalists have been openly abusive on radio and television shows at anything to do with a language act. Unfortunately for Unionism there is no longer a majority of numbers in their favour. They have had numerous chances to win over the Nationalist population in the North, but every time they have given in to their hatred of all things Irish, and elapsed back to their “We are the people” comfort zone. It’s sad really.

  2. Jake Mac Siacais on

    Foster and those with the DUP who acknowledge changed realities at a cognitive level are hamstrung by their emotional and tribal baggage and Irish Identity, language and culture go to the quick. As assassinated Kurdish intellectual and writer Musa Anter said: “if my mother tongue shakes the foundations of your state it means you built your state on our land.” And therein lies the rub.

  3. The DUP trained their dog to be aggressive and as a result it bit its owner. The question for the DUP is, can they get their dog to unlearn its aggressive behaviour before its too late??

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