The collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing agreement in 2017 left civil servants "flying blind" and compromised its pandemic response, the Covid Inquiry has heard.
Denis McMahon, permanent secretary of the NI Executive Office, told the inquiry it is an “unacceptable” state of affairs not to have ministers in place, which is both the situation now and was in the build up to the pandemic.
Following its collapse in 2017, the Northern Ireland Executive was not re-formed until 2020. Power-sharing in Northern Ireland broke down again last year and an executive has yet to be formed after last summer’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections.
Appearing before the Covid Inquiry yesterday, McMahon was asked if the absence of ministerial direction in Northern Ireland had a direct impact on leadership, direction and support for contingency planning.
"I would fully accept that," McMahon replied. "Ministers are crucial. It is a unique position in Northern Ireland, and frankly an unacceptable position, not to have ministers. It is so fundamental to the operation of governments.
"We need the direction and control and we need the legitimacy that democratic accountability brings to decision-making, to make those difficult decisions and to meet those priorities or to decide on those priorities that we need to decide on."
The senior civil servant said many decisions that are required for emergency planning are "operational decisions and can happen without ministers there, and indeed that should be the case".
But he stressed that ministers provide a “focus” and “have the legitimacy of being democratically accountable, which means they can choose what to prioritise.”
Their absence means that “civil servants to some extent are flying blind, because they're not getting the information from the ground that they need, and they're not getting, to be straight, the push that they need at times to do things in a certain way", he added.
Officials operating without ministers in place need to have greater protection, he argued. “I believe that we do need protections in legislation that ensure that, first of all, we have duties that are clearly set out, and I also do believe that we need to have these functions resourced properly and, again, that needs to be set out in legislation."
Dr McMahon told the Covid Inquiry how Northern Ireland had lost 4,400 civil servants between 2014 and 2017. “We didn't actually get those staff back, unlike other parts of the UK,” he said. The consequence of this was that officials were forced to “cannibalise our departments to be able to prepare for EU exit".
Civil servants were preparing for the potential impacts of new border arrangements. “We were genuinely scared of the consequences of a no-deal exit, and that meant that all of our attention was focused on it,” he said.
McMahon’s concerns over the lack of ministerial oversight were echoed by his predecessor, Sir David Sterling. In his witness statement published yesterday, Sir David said: "The three-year period from 2017 to 2020 left the Northern Ireland Departments without the ministerial direction and control that is a prerequisite of our democratic constitution.”
He added: “The absence of this political direction left public services in a state of, what I described publicly at the time, "decay and stagnation" due to the absence of ministerial direction on matters of strategy, policy and the prioritisation of resource allocation."
And a witness statement by Robin Swann, Northern Ireland's minister of health during the pandemic, stated: “Over the previous decade Stormont had let the NI Health Service down by not looking after health and social care as well as it could and should have done.”
He described how “vital services” had been underfunded and “short-term decisions were made instead of longer-term planning and difficult decisions were avoided.”
Swann said: “As health and social care ran on close to empty for 10 years, it meant that there was limited capacity, resilience or flexibility when it was needed most. Accordingly, when the pandemic struck, we were left with no option but to do our best to free up capacity and procure essential equipment at pace.”