The head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service has told a public inquiry that the ongoing power vacuum at Stormont is putting his 23,000 staff in an “unacceptable” position.
David Sterling was speaking at the inquiry into Northern Ireland’s £700m Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, which was a key factor in the collapse of power-sharing arrangements between the DUP and Sinn Féin in early 2017.
Since January last year, the civil service has been left ostensibly in charge of the day-to-day running of Northern Ireland, with budget-setting conducted from Westminster.
Sterling’s comments on the long-term unworkability of current arrangements echo remarks he made to MPs on parliament’s Northern Ireland Committee in January. But the civil service head said he believed that once a new Northern Ireland Executive was in place there was likely to be a new era of honesty about what the civil service could and could not deliver in the light of RHI.
“It’s unacceptable that we’re having to deliver public services in Northern Ireland without ministerial direction,” he said. “But we have to play the ball as we find it.”
“When we do get ministerial direction again, we’re going to have to be more honest and have more robust conversations about what we can and cannot deliver with the resources that are available to us and that may lead to some difficult conversations.
“As head of the civil service I have to accept that we cannot afford to put our people at risk of being asked to deliver something for which they are not adequately resourced or equipped.”
The RHI inquiry has shone a light on the technical competencies within the NI Civil Service, which Sterling said had undermined public confidence in staff working in Stormont departments.
“People will have looked at the impact which RHI has had on [our] reputation,” he said. “I think there’s a very clear sense across the whole of the civil service now that even though this was something that occurred within a small area of a small division of a small department, it has raised questions about the civil service and the civil service’s capability and capacity.
“We take that very seriously and I think we know that we have a job to do to rebuild confidence in the general public that we’re capable of delivering.”