Newly-appointed Cabinet Office second perm sec Sue Gray has spoken of her disappointment at failing to become head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and speculated that she may have been seen as “too challenging” for the role.
Famously once described as “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of”, Gray was director general responsible for propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office. She oversaw the probe that led to the resignation of Cabinet Office minister Damian Green shortly before being appointed as perm sec of Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance in 2018.
Gray was one of the shortlisted candidates to succeed David Sterling when he stepped down as head of the NICS in August last year. But first minister Arlene Foster and deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill did not appoint any of the candidates. The HOCS role has now been modified and a new position of chief operating officer for the NICS introduced, but candidates have yet to be appointed and Jenny Pyper is still in charge of the NICS on an interim basis.
In her first interview since being appointed second perm sec at the Cabinet Office – where she will be responsible for issues related to the Union and constitution – Gray told BBC Northern Ireland’s The View programme of her disappointment at not being picked to succeed Sterling.
“I really wanted the job, but had to get over it,” she said. “Why didn't I get the job? I'm not sure I'll ever quite know but I suspect, you know, I suspect people may have thought that I perhaps was too much of a challenger, or a disrupter.”
Gray acknowledged that she was both a challenger and a disrupter.
“Perhaps I would bring about... too much change. And yes, I wanted to have change,” she said.
Gray said she felt she had “done a lot” at the Department of Finance to progress the way it worked, thought and engaged.
“The last year we have shown how we have done that by delivering so much support to businesses to keep them alive,” she said. “I have engaged with every sector – excluded and others, we’ve given support to the airports, to the hospices – all things that are really good. And I thought that I could bring that way of working into the head of the civil service role.”
NICS was left bruised by the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, which was a contributing factor to the collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland in early 2017. As a consequence, however, officials were left running affairs without an executive for the next three years.
Gray told The View that NICS needed change, but she added that the organisation had also made progress and now had “some great people doing great things”.
"There is more to do and I hope to be able also to work with whoever will be the next head of the civil service to help with that," she said.
She added that her new Cabinet Office job would allow her to maintain close links with Northern Ireland.
“My role will be to ensure and maintain the union and support the prime minister in that work. I will be a very powerful voice for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England,”she said. “And I’ll be working with departments to ensure that when they’re developing policies that we are taking into account the different parts of the United Kingdom.”