By David Young, PA
Edwin Poots has pledged to implement Irish language legislation at Stormont in Northern Ireland as quickly as possible.
The new DUP leader said he wished to “expedite” the rollout of all outstanding aspects of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal that re-established powersharing in 2020.
Mr Poots said Stormont leaders have also agreed to convene a summit to tackle the region’s spiralling healthcare waiting lists.
Sinn Féin has been pressing Mr Poots for a firm commitment on introducing the cultural elements of NDNA, which include protections for Irish and Ulster Scots.
They will be delivered in the form of amendments to the 1998 Northern Ireland Act.
Sinn Féin wants those legislative changes passed before the end of the current Assembly mandate next spring.
While Mr Poots did not specify a timetable, he said he wanted the matter dealt with swiftly.
“I am committed to fulfilling all aspects of New Decade, New Approach,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
“I’ve indicated that I will ask my First Minister, whoever that happens to be, to expedite all aspects of New Decade, New Approach in a timely fashion and as quickly as possible, and that is my commitment to the people of Northern Ireland.”
He added: “We are quite happy to fulfil those cultural amendments to the 1998 Act and we will expedite that as quickly as possible.”
The issue is seen as central to the current flux in the devolved administration and there has been speculation that Sinn Féin could seek guarantees on the Irish language before it re-nominates Michelle O’Neill as deputy First Minister.
When ousted DUP leader Arlene Foster resigns as First Minister, Ms O’Neill is automatically removed from her post as well – as the joint office can only function if both positions are filled.
Both parties will then need to re-nominate their respective first and deputy first ministers within seven days.
If one of the parties declines to re-nominate, then a functioning executive could not be formed and a snap election would become likely.
There had been concerns that the forthcoming ministerial changes could become the source of political contention, potentially posing a risk to the stability of Stormont.
Sinn Féin has made clear it wants commitments from the DUP to introduce Irish language protections and also that the party re-engages with north-south political meetings.
DUP ministers have not attended several recent North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) sectoral meetings – however, Mr Poots had insisted there was no party policy to boycott them.
On Thursday evening, Mr Poots travelled to Dublin for talks with Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
Afterwards he committed to attend the next NSMC plenary meeting in Dublin later in June.
Those who participated in a meeting of the leaders of the main Stormont parties on Thursday afternoon have characterised the exchanges as positive.
One of the main outcomes was an agreement to convene an Executive summit on Northern Ireland’s waiting list crisis.
“At the completion of that discussion we agreed to have a summit for the Executive which would deal exclusively with health, and in particular waiting lists, so that was a course of action that was agreed from the leaders’ forum yesterday,” said Mr Poots.
“We do recognise that the waiting lists that have been allowed to develop in Northern Ireland are entirely unreasonable.”
The DUP leader said the lists had grown at a “shocking rate” in the three-year powersharing impasse at Stormont between 2017 and 2020.