RHI scandal puts top NI Civil Service post in limbo

By Julian O'Neill
BBC News NI Business Correspondent

  • Published

The Renewable Heat Incentive crisis prevented the appointment of a new head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service being finalised, the BBC has learned.

The recruitment process is now in limbo, more than three months after final interviews.

Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness interviewed two contenders, but despite a winner emerging no appointment was made before the executive collapsed.

The Executive Office would not comment on "a live recruitment competition".

Legal advice is likely to be taken to help resolve the situation.

The job carries a salary of up to £180,000, one of the highest paid posts in the Northern Ireland public sector.

The senior civil servants who made the last stage of selection, David Sterling and Andrew McCormick, are caught up in the fall-out over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal.

Both men accepted responsibility for failings around RHI when they gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee.

The RHI scheme was intended to increase the creation of heat from renewable sources.

However, businesses have been receiving more in subsidies than they are paying for renewable fuel and the scheme became majorly oversubscribed.

The fallout from the scandal surrounding the scheme, which is approximately £490m over budget, resulted in the collapse of Stormont's institutions and the calling of snap elections on 2 March.

Delayed retirement

The present head of the NI Civil Service, Sir Malcolm McKibbin, who also acts the executive's chief policy advisor, has had to delay his retirement until April as a stop-gap.

But it is the political dimension in the recruitment of his successor which has presented problems.

It could need the sign-off of the first minister and deputy first minister - posts which may not be filled quickly after the election on 2 March.

Even if they are, there is a further potential complication in that Michelle O'Neill, having replaced Mr McGuinness, was not part of the interview panel in November.

What London might do if Direct Rule is to return is also uncertain.

Close relationship

The Executive Office defended the central roles given to Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness in the selection process, which were changed before the post was advertised last October.

In no other part of the UK do politicians, by themselves, conduct final stage interviews for top Civil Service positions.

The Executive Office said this is because the post holder has "a very close working relationship with both the first minister and deputy first minister".

The two shortlisted candidates had come through a first stage of selection which involved the Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland.