Abortion access, the Northern Ireland Protocol and other knotty issues: Madeleine Alessandri on a year in the life of the NIO

From dealing with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s troubled past and helping the devolved government’s civil service keep essential services running, the NIO faces a unique set of challenges, says its permanent secretary
Source: Alamy

By CSW staff

23 Dec 2022

What has been your highlight of the last 12 months?  

While bittersweet, undoubtedly the highlight of 2022 was welcoming the new King to Northern Ireland. It was a beautiful, blue skies day and the sight of King Charles and the Queen Consort greeting well-wishers in Belfast’s Cathedral Square was wonderful. I am immensely proud of all my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and our amazing partners for delivering the events to mark the Queen’s passing and the proclamation of the new King. 

What was your most difficult decision in 2022?  

Agreeing that the NIO would take on the responsibility for commissioning abortion services in Northern Ireland. Health is a devolved area, yet the devolved government’s continued failure to provide the women and girls of Northern Ireland with the same access to reproductive healthcare as anyone else across the UK left the secretary of state with no alternative but to step in, until the devolved government provides services. As a small, non-health policy department, taking on this responsibility was certainly novel and contentious but it was also unequivocally the right thing to do. 

“The devolved government’s continued failure to provide the women and girls of Northern Ireland with the same access to reproductive healthcare as anyone else across the UK left the secretary of state with no alternative but to step in” 

What is the biggest challenge facing your organisation in 2023, and how are you preparing to meet that challenge as an organisation?  

The biggest challenge we may still face in 2023 is the lack of a devolved government in Northern Ireland. Alongside that are the challenges of the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the NIO continues to work hand in glove with Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office colleagues to resolve these. The lack of a Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly means that there are no locally elected politicians to make the day to day decisions that impact on the lives of everyone in Northern Ireland. We have a responsibility to do everything we can to support our colleagues in the Northern Ireland Civil Service to enable them to keep essential services running. But I am writing this in November 2022 – so I remain hopeful that by the time we reach 2023, the executive will have reformed and so this challenge will have gone away.  

And personally, as a leader?  

As a leader, the biggest challenge I face is ensuring that we have sufficient resilience across our very small organisation to ensure that everyone manages to get time to think, to invest in their own learning and development and to have a reasonable work/life balance. That’s very hard given the knotty challenges we face. From dealing with the difficult legacy of Northern Ireland’s troubled past and our responsibilities for national security, to driving opportunities to increase prosperity in an uncertain political context, the NIO team is continually having to adjust and adapt at pace. Thankfully our amazing but tiny band of corporate colleagues help us keep the wheels on the road: their contribution is critical to all we do.  

It's not only Santa who has to work at Christmas. What is your best, worst or weirdest experience of working in the festive season?  

  Whenever I have had to work over the festive season my wonderful and ever-patient family has always agreed to simply move our celebrations (turkey, crackers and all) to a point when I could step away and turn off my phone. So while I may not always have celebrated Christmas Day on 25 December itself, I’ve always been able to enjoy a Christmas Day with those who matter most to me. So you could say that unlike Santa, I’ve never had to work at Christmas! 

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