Plans to hand more legislative power to civil servants in Northern Ireland greater powers must not compromise their impartiality, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service has said.
Speaking at the European Policy Centre think tank in Brussels on 17 September, David Sterling welcomed planned legislation to enable civil servants to make significant policy decisions but said they would “never be a substitute for democratically elected and accountable ministers”.
“Great care will need to be taken so that any new arrangements which may be put in place, no matter how temporary, do not compromise the impartiality of the civil service,” Sterling said.
Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley announced the plans to give civil servants more power to legislate in the absence of an elected government at Stormont earlier this month.
Public officials have effectively been running the government in Northern Ireland since January 2017, when a power-sharing agreement collapsed. However, a court case in May curtailed their ability to take decisions usually reserved for ministers when a judge ruled the Department for Infrastructure’s permanent secretary could not sign off on a waste incinerator plant.
He said civil servants had been doing what they could to manage “the most pressing issues” but were “relatively powerless to deal with the most difficult problems”.
Bradley’s efforts to clarify civil servants’ powers were therefore welcome, he said, but stressed that the return of the Northern Ireland executive was urgently needed.
“Only ministers can decide what are the best strategies and policies to make a difference, only ministers can set priorities for action, and only ministers can choose how best to allocate the scarce resources, especially financial resources, available to us,” he said.
“We cannot afford to have our integrity called into question when we are called to serve a new executive.”
At the event, Sterling also expressed concerns that the UK and EU have yet to reach a withdrawal agreement.
"I cannot stray into political territory, however you will not be surprised to hear that we have deep concerns about the risk that no deal is agreed and there is chaotic exit from the EU," he said.
Sterling made the comments the same day as Bradley met Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs and trade, in Dublin to discuss the lack of a Stormont executive. Following the meeting, Bradley said the two sides would continue to push for its “rapid restoration”.
“To work towards that we intend to work more intensively to establish a basis for moving into more formal political dialogue, in accordance with the three stranded approach,” she said.