Turmoil as ministers fail to agree on new head for Northern Ireland Civil Service

Union warns DUP and Sinn Féin not to put “partisan interests” ahead of leadership for public services
Hard to replace: former NICS head David Sterling photo by Kelvin Boyes for CSW

By Jim Dunton

25 Sep 2020

Civil servants in Northern Ireland face new turmoil after the Northern Ireland Executive's political leaders failed to appoint a head for the NI Civil Service despite conducting final interviews with three candidates this week.

Public service leaders union the FDA said the decision, which comes 10 months after former chief exec David Sterling announced his decision to retire, was “very disappointing news” that would increase uncertainty among staff at a time of crisis.

Sterling served his last day as NICS head at the end of August and three candidates – including former Cabinet Office head of propriety and ethics Sue Gray, now perm sec at Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance – were understood to have been on the final shortlist.

But the Northern Ireland Executive, led by first minister Arlene Foster of the DUP and Michelle O'Neill of Sinn Féin, announced on Thursday that no appointment would result from the recruitment round.

A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Executive office said: “The first minister and deputy first minister have not made an appointment following the recent competition for the head of the civil service. Next steps are currently being considered.”

FDA national officer Allan Sampson said that the development – which comes  just over eight months after power sharing was restored  – would make it harder for civil servants to do their jobs.

“This is very disappointing news which leaves the Northern Ireland Civil Service in a state of uncertainty at a time of crisis,” he said. 

“The service is crucial to the delivery of vital public services, and it is therefore deeply concerning that ministers would put themselves, civil servants and the people of Northern Ireland in this position in the middle of a pandemic.

“This process has already been very slow, with the previous head announcing his retirement last year. 

“Ministers must now set out why they have made this decision and what their plan is to provide the Northern Ireland Civil Service with the leadership it needs at this critical time.”

Sampson concluded: “It is absolutely vital that we protect the impartiality of our civil service, and politicians must ensure they do not to put partisan interests ahead of effective government and public need.”

Colin McGrath, who chairs the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Executive Office Scrutiny Committee said he was “deeply concerned” that a successor to David Sterling had not been appointed.

“Mr Sterling announced his retirement 10 months ago,” he said. “It’s incredible that the first minister and deputy first minister have allowed it to get to this point.”

McGrath, whose party is the SDLP, said his committee would want detailed information about the process and what the interim plans were.

The BBC reported deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill saying she hoped an interim chief executive could be appointed ahead of the relaunch of a recruitment process.

Civil Service World reported in July that the Northern Ireland Executive was offering up to £190,000 a year for Sterling’s successor.

In addition to being the most senior of the NICS’ 23,000-plus civil servants, the head’s role also includes acting as perm sec of the Executive Office and secretary to the Northern Ireland Executive.

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