David Sterling stands down after ‘42 years, 199 days’ with NICS

Former Cabinet Office ethics chief Sue Gray among candidates to succeed Sterling as head of Northern Ireland Civil Service
David Sterling photographed by Kelvin Boyes

By Jim Dunton

01 Sep 2020

Northern Ireland Civil Service head David Sterling marked his last day at the helm of the organisation yesterday, saying it had been a "privilege" to work for the organisation for more than four decades.

Sterling ascended to the top role at Stormont Castle in 2017 as interim successor to Sir Malcolm McKibbin – three months into the political deadlock in Northern Ireland that followed the collapse of power sharing between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

He was subsequently appointed the role on a permanent basis as civil servants effectively ran public services without ministerial direction in the political vacuum that continued until the beginning of this year.

In December Sterling announced he would retire at the end of August, describing the period in which Northern Ireland was run without an executive in place as “among the most challenging and difficult in the history of the Northern Ireland Civil Service”.

Marking his last day in post yesterday, former Department of Finance perm sec Sterling paid tribute to colleagues and produced some numbers of his own. 

“Today I leave the NICS after 42 years, 199 days,” he wrote. “I’m proud to have worked with wonderful people and dedicated public servants who work hard every day to make a difference. It has been an honour and a privilege to lead the organisation.”

He continued: “Thank you for your support and good wishes.”

Reports over the weekend suggested that five of Northern Ireland’s top civil servants were interviewed last week as part of the selection process for Sterling’s successor. 

Among them were thought to be former Cabinet Office head of propriety and ethics Sue Gray – now Department of Finance perm sec;  Department of Justice perm sec Peter May; Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs perm sec Denis McMahon; and NI Government Legal Service head Hugh Widdis.

At least one “external candidate” is said to have been interviewed as part of the process. 

Julian Smith, who worked alongside Sterling as Northern Ireland secretary for seven months up to February, congratulated the former perm sec on his retirement.

"You and your team held NI government together for three years without Stormont. These three years were extremely demanding, with Brexit and now you've helped steer the ship through Covid. Have a good break and look forward to seeing what you do next," he said on Twitter.

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