A SENIOR Ulster Unionist has hit out at public money being used to fund Irish language classes for civil servants.
The Department of Regional Development began running the voluntary classes earlier this month, with a 12-week training course costing taxpayers 1,500.
UUP deputy leader Danny Kennedy said: "While the Ulster Unionist Party is committed to recognising the cultural diversity of this part of the UK, we will not stand idly by while the Irish language continues to be used and abused for political ends.
"We've just heard that a hefty sum is being made available to Irish language, thanks to Hillsborough, and now Minister Murphy has seen fit to hand over money that could have been spent fixing the roads.
"At what point does this stop being about supporting cultural diversity and become yet another shameless Sinn Fein ideological crusade?"
He said the actual cost was not the issue.
"The actual cost of this is irrelevant – quite simply DRD is not supposed to be worrying about the Irish language, and Minister Murphy's time would be better spent on issues that are actually within his remit.
"This is public money that has been allocated to roads, public transport and the like, and should not be diverted on a ministerial whim.
"If people want to learn the Irish language, there are ample opportunities to do so in community centres and further education colleges – bringing it into the civil service smacks of political opportunism."
DUP MLA Allan Bresland branded the courses "a senseless waste of money".
He said: "All across Northern Ireland the standard of our roads network is being called into question yet Conor Murphy and his officials in DRD think it is prudent to waste money on lunch-time Irish classes.
"I am not opposed to people learning Irish but I am opposed to money which should be spent DRD issues being thrown at lunch-time schooling."
The DRD has defended the classes.
It said they were organised in response to a demand from staff.
There are two 12-week courses, one for beginners and one a refresher course.
A DRD spokesman said: "Irish language lunch-time classes for staff is one of a range of initiatives which the minister has taken to fulfil the Department's commitments under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
"It is also an objective in the department's corporate, social responsibility programme.
"The purpose of the classes is to help staff use Irish in presenting the department's business and in doing so, to help fulfil charter commitments to promote regional and minority languages."
The spokesman said the classes were in demand.
"The 20 places for each class are fully subscribed and I have a waiting list which is growing every day.
"The total cost for the 12-week training course will be 1,500, which represents good value for money."
The Department of Education, which is run by Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane, may also soon offer Irish classes for staff.
A circular was recently sent out asking for expressions of interest.