26 September 2023

NORTHERN IRELAND: Provincial PS ‘stagnating’

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The head of Northern Ireland’s Public Service, David Sterling (pictured) said it was “keeping the show on the road” but services and preparations for the United Kingdom leaving the European Union (Brexit) were paying the price.

In an interview, Mr Sterling said that since the collapse of the Northern Ireland Government following a fall-out between coalition parties two-and-a-half years ago Public Servants had balanced the books and kept the business of Government going.

“I don’t report to anybody. I have no boss. There are no Assembly scrutiny committees,” Mr Sterling said.

“People joke that Civil Servants would see this as being heaven, but that’s far from the truth.”

He said the system expected Public Servants to be under the direction and control of democratically elected and accountable Ministers.

“I think I can speak on behalf of all of my colleagues when I say we miss that, and we miss that badly,” Mr Sterling said.

He said that so far there had not been a “cliff edge moment”, but the lack of fresh policy has led to stagnation in public services with some areas crying out for transformation and political leadership.

Mr Sterling cited unacceptably long waiting lists for health services, budgetary pressures on schools, and social housing maintenance issues.

“The Civil Service cannot entirely avoid making decisions and we have had to walk a fine line on matters which would normally be decided by Ministers,” he said.

“Sadly, the limbo that we’ve been suffering for the last few years is in danger of becoming the new normal in Northern Ireland.”

One option would be for Westminster to reimpose direct rule, formally suspending the power-sharing Executive and Northern Ireland Assembly established under the 1999 Good Friday Agreement which ended 30 years of civil unrest in the Province.

Mr Sterling said this would be a bad outcome.

“We don’t want to be without Ministers, but you cannot beat having your own locally elected Ministers run your administrations; it is better than any of the alternatives,” he said.

“However, if we are faced with a no deal Brexit, it will not be acceptable for officials to be left without political leadership.”

Belfast, 1 August, 2019

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