N. Ireland Politics

David Sterling: The civil servant holding Stormont's purse strings

David Sterling
Image caption Civil servant David Sterling may be given the task of cutting £2.8bn from executive departments

"He is used to dealing with tricky issues."

That's the verdict from a former colleague of the civil servant who now effectively controls the purse strings in Northern Ireland.

In the absence of a sitting executive, it is perhaps fitting that the man now in control of a budget of more than £10bn is called Sterling.

Failure by politicians to fix the budget crisis has brought David Sterling centre stage - never the most comfortable of places for any civil servant.

On Wednesday, the most senior civil servant at the Department of Finance gains control of a sum of money equivalent to 75% of this year's budget.

Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act allows him to use that money "for such services and purposes" as he directs.

Consensus builder

Numbers come naturally to the civil service lifer who has been permanent secretary at the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) for the past year.

Mr Sterling joined the civil service in 1978 and has progressed up the ranks, first to permanent secretary of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) in 2009 and then onto DFP.

He was permanent secretary at DETI when the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme was set up in 2012.

"He is one of the very few people in the civil service who has gone from entry level at the bottom to the very top," said one person who works with him.

In both cases, he has worked alongside former first minister Arlene Foster.

He was a central figure in staging the successful G8 summit in Fermanagh in 2013. He is described by a colleague as "a consensus builder and, as such, is highly regarded".

Mr Sterling was also permanent secretary at DETI when the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme was set up in 2012. The scheme, which is about £490m over budget, resulted in a scandal that played a major role in the collapse of Stormont's institutions in January.

Another observation - garnered from inside one of Northern Ireland's quangos - is that he is "canny" and "a bit of a Mr Grey" - both qualities that go a long way in the upper levels of the civil service.

His interests include cycling, walking and golf.

He won't be having much time to swing a club in the next few months though, as his mind may have to be focused on swinging the fiscal axe.

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