‘An uncomfortable position for a civil servant to be in’: Julie Harrison discusses making decisions in absence of Northern Ireland Executive

The Northern Ireland Office perm sec, who held a senior position in NICS for most of the year, reflects on the challenges and scrutiny that came with being in charge
Stormont. Photo: Roger Bradley/Alamy

By CSW staff

22 Dec 2023


Tell us three words that sum up your 2023... 

Hectic, challenging (but) productive! 

...And why you chose those words 

For most of 2023 I was permanent secretary in the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) in Northern Ireland, leading the Department in the absence of ministers and without a functioning Executive. That meant doing all of the “normal” work of a perm sec as well as taking decisions that would normally be for ministers. It is an uncomfortable position for a civil servant to be in. Each decision had to be carefully judged in the context of guidance set out under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act which seeks to balance public interest and financial considerations – a very tricky mix. In a department like DfI, many of those decisions have real-world impacts and the public and media scrutiny that came with them was challenging. 

What are your organisational and personal priorities for 2024? 

Our main focus in the Northern Ireland Office at the moment, working with colleagues in the NI civil service and across Whitehall, is to see the NI Executive restored and sustainable. But no matter what happens in that space we have plenty to do to support a peaceful, prosperous, stable and safe Northern Ireland. That work continues. 

I tend not to set personal priorities at the start of a New Year, but constantly remind myself of the need to make sure that I take proper time “out” and to encourage my team to do the same. We are more effective when we do. 

What’s your favourite festive treat, and what makes you say: ‘Bah, humbug’? 

My family is pretty widely spread around the world, so my favourite festive treat is relaxing with them (fuelled, of course, by an inordinate amount of mince pies and chocolates). 

This is part of CSW's annual perm secs roundup. Read all the entries to the 2023 roundup here

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