Northern Ireland Civil Service gets new interim head

Department of Finance perm sec David Sterling steps up to succeed Malcolm McKibbin amid continued political turmoil

David Sterling Credit: Northern Ireland Executive

By Jim.Dunton

15 Jun 2017

David Sterling has been named as the interim successor to Northern Ireland Civil Service head Sir Malcolm McKibbin, who is due to retire at the end of this month

Sterling – currently Department of Finance permanent secretary –  takes up the new role with immediate effect, a move McKibbin said would allow him to use his remaining time in office to help re-establish devolved political leadership at Stormont.

Northern Ireland has effectively been run by the civil service since March as the result of political deadlock. Sinn Féin pulled out of power-sharing arrangements with the Democratic Unionist Party in protest over the mishandling of a renewable-heating initiative in January, which led to an election in March that again returned the two as the the largest parties in the assembly. No deal has yet been reached to restart power-sharing, with Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire putting civil servants in charge of spending decisions from 28 March.


UK prime minister Theresa May’s reliance on the support of 10 DUP MPs in Westminster  is a potential additional complication for negotiations.

A statement issued on behalf of the executive yesterday said that in addition to his temporary promotion, Sterling would keep responsibility for the Department of  Finance until the end of this month.

It said that the appointment had been made by McKibbin, who had been due to retire as civil service head at the end of January, but has stayed on because of the ongoing political wrangling.

McKibbin said Northern Ireland’s civil service was living through “unique times” as it continued to offer support to all parties in the talks to restore the Executive.

“In the face of these unusual circumstances, making this temporary appointment allows me to concentrate fully on my role in the talks and for David to discharge the significant responsibilities of the post,” he said.

“It is critical for the NICS to have an experienced and qualified person in charge of such a large and diverse organisation at this time.”

Yesterday Brokenshire said a deal to restore devolved power-sharing government to Stormont had to be reached by June 29, but warned “very little time is left”.

Multi-party talks including Theresa May were due to take place today.

The Northern Ireland Civil Service has been recruiting for a full-time replacement for McKibbin since October last year, and is offering a salary of up to £178,709. It described the process as still “live”, but stressed it would be for incoming ministers to make an appointment.

Under the current emergency arrangements for running Northern Ireland, Sterling has powers to release limited funds to keep services operating, but the figure is capped at 95% of the past year’s budget and there is no authority to raise rates.

Sterling joined the civil service as an administrative officer in 1978. He became permanent secretary at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in 2009, and took the helm of the finance department in July 2014.

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