UUP fury as vote bid over new Irish school is stymied
The UUP has accused Sinn Fein and the SDLP of politicising the Irish language after 40 MLAs forced a cross-community recorded vote in a forthcoming debate over a new Irish school.
Education Minister John O'Dowd last month announced his department would be funding a new Irish-medium secondary school in Dungiven for just 14 pupils, against advice from his own officials and the Western Education and Library Board.
It is set to cost £600,000.
Coláiste Dhoire, to be located in Owenbeg on the outskirts of Dungiven, Co Londonderry, will be only the second State-funded Irish-medium secondary school in Northern Ireland.
The other is Coláiste Feirste in Belfast.
Mr O'Dowd defended his decision, saying he takes "very seriously" his statutory duty to encourage and facilitate education through the medium of Irish
"While I note the advice of officials, I am the minister and it is my role to make the final decision on all development proposals," he said.
Ulster Unionist MLAs Danny Kinahan and Sandra Overend secured a debate in the Assembly on Monday expressing their concern at the decision. They have urged the Assembly to back their call for a review of the decision.
However, 40 MLAs from Sinn Fein and the SDLP - including Mr O'Dowd and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness - signed a petition of concern.
This means that any vote taken by the Assembly can be made dependent on cross-community support.
UUP chief whip Robin Swann slammed the move as "shameful".
"The use of a petition of concern indicates that those two parties regard the Irish language as belonging solely to the nationalist and republican tradition, thereby politicising it still further," he said.
Sinn Fein's Westminster candidate for Foyle, Gearoid O hEara, hit back, pointing out that it was the UUP that was bringing the matter to the Assembly.
"There is only one post-primary school for the entire north of Ireland, which is based in Belfast. In order to provide access for countless primary school children to be taught through the medium of the Irish language, this project falls within the duty of the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate Irish-medium education," he said.
"The UUP needs to get real and realise the right and entitlements of the Irish-speaking community across the north, instead of seeking to close down access to educational opportunities."
There are currently 29 Irish-medium schools in Northern Ireland and a further 10 Irish language units attached to mainstream schools which teach around 4,633 children through the the language.
In addition to these, Gaelscoil na Daróige in Derry is an independent school teaching through the medium of the Irish language.