A Sinn Fein-run department has come under fire for recruiting two Irish language posts during a widespread squeeze on the public sector.
The salaries of the two jobs combined is up to £58,406 per year and, at time of writing they were two of just five publicly advertised job vacancies on the Civil Service website.
Both are roles which are currently being covered on a temporary basis by a recruitment agency. They are now to be made permanent.
A UUP MLA said that the move “flies in the face” of current cutbacks.
For instance in March a scheme began to try and shed around 2,400 full-time equivalent jobs from the civil service (slightly over nine per cent of the total) within one year.
The Irish language jobs are within the Department of Culture Leisure and Sport (DCAL), run by Sinn Fein minister and former IRA convict Caral Ni Chuilin.
One is listed as “Liofa Development Officer (Staff Officer)” and has a salary of up to £31,135, while the other is “Liofa Support Officer (Executive Officer 1)” which carries a salary of up to £27,271.
The Liofa programme (meaning “fluent” in Irish) is a drive to increase the use of the Irish language.
It began in 2011, and the target is to have 20,000 people signed up by 2020.
There are currently around 13,000 participants.
Those signing up can get a year’s free subscription to an Irish language beginner’s-level course worth £120, as well as applying to Irish-language summer courses and more.
Leslie Cree, UUP MLA and member of Stormont’s culture committee, said: “There is supposed to be a freeze on recruitment, a voluntary exit scheme, and no promotions for existing staff – so it does seem to fly in the face of that.
“I’m surprised in the face of a tight situation everywhere that they’re making more people permanent, when in fact there’s a voluntary exit scheme to reduce the budget.”
He said officials have told him that there are three tiers of spending in DCAL: ‘inescapable’, ‘high priority’, then ‘lower priority’.
“I’d guess Liofa is a ministerial priority,” said Mr Cree. “Something she fancies.”
DUP member of the culture committee David Hilditch said: “The concern about Liofa is the fact it seems to override everything, including the budget as well.
“In the June monitoring round the minister does give a priority to Liofa over many other successful existing projects.”
He added: “Everybody is being told to tighten their belt, basically. And that should mean everybody, and shouldn’t mean one sector is given any advantage over the other.”
The department said: “The minister recently announced a revised Líofa target to have 20,000 people fluent in Irish by 2020.
“Suitably qualified and experienced personnel therefore need to be recruited to help deliver on this policy commitment. A business case has been approved.”
It added there is “significant demand for and usage of the Líofa programme and the Irish language in general”, and cited statistics from the 2011 Census showing that roughly 11 per cent of the population had knowledge of Irish.