NI Civil Service: Ministers fail to appoint a new chief

By Enda McClafferty
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

  • Published
Image caption,
An Executive Office spokesperson confirmed an appointment had not been made

The First and Deputy First Ministers have failed to appoint a new Head of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland following a round of interviews.

It is understood that three candidates were interviewed on Wednesday, but were unsuccessful.

In a statement, an Executive Office spokesperson confirmed an appointment had not been made.

They said the "next steps are currently being considered".

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said she hoped the Executive Office would be shortly able to appoint an interim Head of the Civil Service, until a new full recruitment process can take place.

The post has remained vacant since David Sterling stepped down at the end of August.

He had worked in the civil service for more than 40 years, joining in 1978.

It is understood the three candidates interviewed yesterday were Sue Gray who is Permanent Secretary with the Department of Finance, Peter May who is Permanent Secretary at the Justice Department and Richard Pengelly who is the Permanent Secretary at the health department.

In July, it was reported that the NI Civil Service was offering a salary of up to £188,272 for its top job.

The NI Civil Service employs about 22,845 staff and has a total annual budget in excess of £20bn.

The Head of the Civil Service in NI is also Head of The Executive Office and Secretary to the NI Executive.

"Serious concern"

The chair of Stormont's Executive Office scrutiny committee and SDLP MLA, Colin McGrath, has said he is concerned about the failure to appoint a new head.

He said Mr Sterling had announced his intention to retire in December 2019 and it was "incredible, given the extended notice period, that we're now left in a situation where the joint First Ministers have been unable to appoint a replacement and the office of our most senior civil servant is vacant".

Image caption,
Colin McGrath MLA said he was concerned at the failure to appoint a Head of the Civil Service in NI

"We're in the middle of a global health pandemic, our economy is under severe pressure and we're facing the chaos of Brexit, this is a moment when we need government to operate efficiently and effectively," he said.

"It is a serious concern that we will not have a Head of the Civil Service to implement Executive decisions quickly.

"The First Ministers need to explain what the interim arrangements will be, what the process for identifying a suitable replacement is and when we can expect an appointment for this important position.

"The Executive Office Committee will want information about this situation quickly."

Alliance leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long said it was "crucial" that someone was appointed to the role soon.

"I'm very clear as we head into what is a turbulent period in terms of Covid and Brexit, it's absolutely crucial we have strong leadership and someone to help guide us and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland."

Dave Penman, General Secretary of the FDA union, told BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback it was "extraordinary" no-one had been appointed to the role.

"It is irresponsible of the political leadership in Northern Ireland, they have had 10 months' notice of David Sterling's decision to retire," he said.

"It is the people of Northern Ireland who will potentially pay a price for this."

Professor of Social Policy at Ulster University, Deirdre Heenan, said it was a "damning indictment of our governance here".

She said she believed the system for appointing the Head of the NI Civil Service was "not fit for purpose".