Returning Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster has paid tribute to the work of civil servants who have run the devolved administration in the absence of ministers for the last three years.
Speaking after the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly backed a proposal from the British and Irish governments to restart the power-sharing administration at Stormont under Foster and deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill, Foster acknowledged that officials had been placed in an uncomfortable position.
“Civil servants have had to step into the breach, and I pay tribute to the way they have done that,” she said. “None of them wanted to do that, but they did it,” she told Radio 4's Today.
Ahead of a meeting with the prime minister today, Foster said she would prioritise reaching an agreement with the UK government on long-term funding for the executive. New finance minister Conor Murphy also said the British and Irish governments needed to provide a financial package to help returning politicans improve public services.
Murphy said last week's joint declaration contained “ambitious commitments for public services and workers”.
“To deliver these commitments, the governments pledged a substantial injection of funding, over and above the block grant,” he said.
“The local parties have done their part by restoring the power-sharing executive. The two governments must now honour their pledge and provide the funding needed to deliver on the New Decade, New Approach document.”
The joint agreement that restored power sharing also called for the creation of two “language commissioners” in a bid to remove barriers that had blocked previous attempts to revive the assembly.
The incoming executive would prioritise reforms to the health service, education and justice, along with improving transparency and accountability in government, the NIO said.
It would also examine behavioural standards for civil servants, ministers and special advisers conduct themselves. The NICS Code of ethical standards has been under review since late 2018, following revelations that officials had not kept records of high-level meetings during the so-called Cash for Ash scandal, which led to the collapse of power sharing in 2017.
Civil servants have effectively been running Northern Ireland since then.
Northern Ireland Civil Service head David Sterling, who will retire in August, has said it is "unacceptable" that civil servants have been left in charge, calling the period “among the most challenging and difficult in the history of the Northern Ireland Civil Service”.
“We have found ourselves in the unique situation of working without ministerial direction to keep public services running and deliver the best possible outcomes for our people at a time of unprecedented challenge,” he said when announcing his retirement in December.
“The enormity of the task has put significant pressure on the NICS and I am proud of the way we have responded.”