David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, has announced he will retire at the end of August next year after more than four decades as an official.
Sterling, whose entire stint as NICS head has been marked by a lack of ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, took up the post from Malcolm McKibbin in June 2017, having previously been permanent secretary at the NI Department of Finance.
Civil servants have effectively been running the country in the absence of ministers since a power-sharing agreement collapsed in early 2017. Sterling has said it is "unacceptable" that officials have been left in charge of Northern Ireland, and today he said it had “been among the most challenging and difficult in the history of the Northern Ireland Civil Service”.
He added: “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.
“The enormity of the task has put significant pressure on the NICS and I am proud of the way we have responded.”
The Executive Office said Sterling had announced his retirement to allow a competition for his successor to be launched at the earliest opportunity after the executive is restored. He told party leaders as well as colleagues this morning.
Responding to the announcement, cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill said: "I’d like to thank David Sterling for his decades of dedicated public service to the citizens and communities in Northern Ireland and to his country, notably in the past few years in the absence of the executive. He is an outstanding colleague with whom we will continue to work closely in his last few months as head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and whose well-earned retirement we will mark at the appropriate time."
Sterling, who will turn 62 in March, joined the Northern Ireland Civil Service on 13 February 1978. The first half of his career was spent working on policing and criminal justice policies.
Reflecting on this experience in an interview with CSW this year, Sterling said: “I worked through the 80s and the early 1990s here, including through the hunger strike in 1981 [when 10 Republican prisoners died during a six-month protest]. I saw the worst of times in Northern Ireland; I attended a lot of funerals.
“That probably did shape me. I feel a sense of pride that the civil service came through those times and continued to provide good service to the community in the most difficult of circumstances. It was an organisation which, by and large, represented both sides of the community throughout that period.”
He told CSW he was “very seized of the importance of the Good Friday Agreement, and the settlement that it has provided, the accommodation that’s been reached between the two communities which should ensure that we don’t go back to those dark times”.
Sterling described the first phase of devolution between 2000 and 2003 as “heady days” despite being challenging in very different ways to his early career. By then, he was working in the finance department and involved with helping the new executive set its budget.
“It was fast paced, it was long hours, it was very demanding but ultimately it was very rewarding because even at the time getting a budget agreed amongst the parties in the executive was no mean feat. Seeing [politicians] work together for the first time to actually govern this place was hugely satisfying.”
However, the NICs chief also acknowledged problems with the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme run in Northern Ireland, which was partly to blame for the collapse of the power-sharing agreement in 2017.
The RHI scheme was launched in 2012 and offered substantial subsidies to farmers who agreed to use renewable energy sources to heat buildings.
However, in what became known as the "Cash for Ash" scandal, it emerged that the scheme lacked effective cost controls and enabled some property owners to turn a profit by heating buildings they had not heated previously. The RHI closed to new participants in 2016, and the UK parliament passed legislation in March that will drastically cut the subsidies available to remaining RHI scheme participants.
Sterling, who was perm sec at Northern Ireland’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment when it was launched, has apologised several times on behalf of the civil service for the failures of public administration. He has also issued an apology to the civil service on behalf of those at DETI. “Given that I was in the department at the time the scheme was set up, I know very well that this was a relatively small project in what at the time was a relatively small department,” he told CSW. “And I think it is unfair that the whole of the civil service becomes criticised for what happened in one relatively small part of the service.”
In today’s statement, Sterling said: “Throughout my career, including my time as head of the civil service, I have been impressed and humbled by the work of civil servants across departments and I want to thank them for the great work they do every day to help make people’s lives better.”