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Minister speaking the language of distraction

Has the Department for Regional Development not got enough work to do? Cynics will wonder whether it's entirely coincidental that Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy has chosen to publish controversial proposals for bilingual road signs just as criticism over the water crisis reaches a crescendo.

The issue is a useful distraction for the minister. His DRD consultation paper envisages traffic signs featuring either Irish or Ulster Scots alongside the English language.

A 'proposer' would petition the local council for bilingual "welcome signs" for their town or village, "supplementary plates" and warning notices (for example underneath the red triangles which warn motorists that a school is ahead).

Murphy claims the policy would be of little financial consequence to his department because the proposer would bear all costs for altering a sign.

We can safely assume, though, that if the plan does go ahead, the public purse will not emerge unscathed. By the department's own admission, proposals are most likely to come from local councils themselves, or from managers of public facilities.

Then there are the expenses involved in consulting the public, not to mention the man hours wasted on drafting a paper in the first place, when DRD has so many more pressing issues at hand.

To date there is still no sign of spending plans which the department needs to submit to the finance minister as part of a draft Budget.

While the DRD starts a consultation on bilingual signs, its foot-dragging on finance means the public can't subject the draft Budget to similar scrutiny. We can contribute to a trivial and divisive debate on Irish and Ulster Scots until our hearts are content, yet offering an informed opinion on spending plans which will affect all our lives during the next four years is practically impossible.

Murphy's timing is attracting justifiable criticism from political opponents. But it is unlikely to bother him much. He's too busy playing to the gallery.

The bilingual sign policy will help rally Sinn Fein supporters around the beleaguered minister in his hour of need.

It is, after all, a hoary republican chestnut wrapped up in a set of politically correct new clothes.

Even the draft Equality Impact Assessment accompanying the consultation paper concludes the policy has the potential to damage "good relations between persons of different political opinion".

The DRD airily dismisses that criticism, maintaining that it will confine its proposals "to discrete areas where there is confirmed overall support for the signing".

In Northern Ireland, that means marking out, with supreme accuracy, which community is dominant in a given locality.

In fact it could well become a mark of loyalist or republican pride for an area to sport these signs.

It's as effective as scrawling 'Prods out' or 'Taigs out' on a wall, but it guarantees a row in the council chamber and costs the public money.

Could anything be better suited to Sinn Fein's purposes? The party can pretend to occupy the moral high ground, claiming it is fighting the corner for minority languages, while starting a good old-fashioned sectarian ruckus to distract from the bread and butter controversies afflicting its minister. It also neatly matches its preference for separation, rather than sharing.

Indeed the policy encapsulates an attitude to integration common to both Sinn Fein and the DUP. After two years bickering, the biggest Executive parties devised a desperately weak Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy document which paid lip service to a shared future but offered practically no concrete ideas to help bring it about. Both Sinn Fein and the DUP are so focused on asserting what they view as their respective cultures that it leaves precious little room for neutral space or integration. It's far more important to secure one side's cultural 'rights' rather than ensure that the other side feels welcome.

Genuine commitment to a shared future might mean some compromises, and that would never do. Meanwhile, all sorts of divisive behaviour can be justified under the guise of protecting culture.

It's interesting that Murphy's paper completely dismisses the possibility of trilingual signs. They, presumably, would just annoy everybody, and fail to make quite such an unequivocal statement of identity for the community involved.

If the proposals are to go ahead at all, perhaps it would be better if trilingual signs were the only alternative option. That would soon separate the proposers who intend to make a positive cultural statement from those who wish to rub their neighbours' noses in it.

As it is, this consultation document represents exactly the kind of gesture politics which gets our representatives such a bad name.

It proves that, for some ministers at least, integration is an alien concept.