Northern Ireland Civil Service recruitment drive to create ‘merit list’ of future perm secs

Unusual recruitment process will establish possible candidates for £133k posts to lead Northern Ireland departments – but there are currently no vacancies

The Stormont Assembly building. Photo: PA

By Richard Johnstone

18 Oct 2017

The Northern Ireland Civil Service has launched a recruitment process to identify possible candidates to fill permanent secretary vacancies across departments in the next 18 months – even though there are currently no vacancies.

The advert on the Northern Ireland Civil Service recruitment website for “permanent secretary positions” stated that the process would create a “merit list”, with candidates being “used to fill vacancies which arise over the lifetime of the merit list”.


This would open up the potential to lead one of the nine Northern Ireland government departments “at a time of significant challenge and opportunity and as such requires outstanding leadership and relationship management skills”, according to the advert.

“Where a further position in the NICS is identified which is considered broadly similar to that outlined in this candidate information booklet, consideration will be given to filling the position from this competition.”

A spokesman for the Department of Finance confirmed that the exercise will be used to fill vacancies that arise over the lifetime of the competition “so we cannot be specific at this stage about the department(s) to which the successful candidate(s) may be assigned”.

According to the candidate information pack, the merit list will apply for a period of up 18 months, while the positions will attract a salary of between £114,047 to £133,327 and be based in Belfast.

Northern Ireland has effectively been run by the civil service since March as the result of political deadlock that saw political power-sharing executive collapse. 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 largest parties in the assembly. But no agreement could be reached on terms to establish an executive.

During this period, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Sir Malcolm McKibbin retired, and was replaced on an ongoing interim basis by Department of Finance permanent secretary David Sterling. According to minutes from the Northern Ireland Civil Service Board, Sterling was replaced by Hugh Widdis in July, meaning there are no current vacancies across the top jobs.

Currently, there are no female perm secs in Northern Ireland departments, and the job advert stated: “As women are currently known to be under represented in this grade across the NICS, applications from women would be particularly welcome”.

In addition to the Sterling and Widdis, the current permanent secretaries across the Stormont government are Leo O’Reilly (Department for Communities); Noel Lavery (Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs); Derek Baker (Department of Education); Andrew McCormick (Department for the Economy); Peter May (Department for Infrastructure); Richard Pengelly (Department of Health) and Nick Perry (Department of Justice).

Responding to the announcement, Allan Sampson, FDA trade union's national officer for Northern Ireland, said the union had been consulted on the recruitment programme and had no concerns.

"We welcome the move, which signals a return to normality after a period of significant contraction due to restructuring from 12 to 9 departments," he added

Candidates should apply by noon on Friday 3 November 2017, with applicants shortlisted in the week commencing 13 November. Final selection interviews will be held in the week starting 1 January 2018 in Belfast.

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