Northern Ireland

Covid Inquiry: Sue Gray quizzed on Stormont leaks

Sue Gray giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry in Belfast
Sue Gray giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry in Belfast

Sue Gray, the ex-civil servant turned chief of staff for Sir Keir Starmer, has begun giving evidence to the Covid-19 Inquiry on her time as a permanent secretary in Northern Ireland.

Ms Gray was the top civil servant in Stormont’s Department of Finance at the outset of the pandemic before she transferred to the Cabinet Office in London in May 2021.

She was asked to appear before the inquiry as the only senior ranking civil servant who had experience of working for both the devolved administration in Northern Ireland and the British government during the coronavirus emergency.

During her time in the Department of Finance she was asked to undertake a leak investigation amid official concerns at the volume of information from confidential executive meetings that was being reported in the media.

Today, on the last day of the inquiry’s sittings in Belfast, she highlighted the differences between the Stormont executive and the Cabinet when it came to leaking from meetings.

“I’m not going to say that everything is perfect there (at Cabinet in London) but, you know, people do respect the process and (at) Cabinet - often issues get resolved in Cabinet committees, not always at Cabinet - but you don’t read about (them), you occasionally read about differences of views, but there tends to be a certain discipline,” she said.

Ms Gray noted that, unlike in the British government, there was no defined rules around collective responsibility at Stormont.

She said at Cabinet, ministers took collective responsibility for decisions even if they disagreed with them. She reflected on her time working in the Cabinet Office during the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition and said when ministers from the different parties disagreed on an issue there was a set process on how to deal with that which allowed prime minister David Cameron and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to express their different views in Parliament.

“I think they demonstrated great leadership in how they handled those issues, it didn’t break down in trust because actually it was a very honest and open and frank process,” she said.

Ms Gray acknowledged the mandatory coalition system in Northern Ireland was different, pointing out that when she was working at Stormont there were five parties in the administration, but said she believed a similar process could be made to work in the north.

Sue Gray has said using an independent adviser to investigate leaks from ministerial meetings can prove “fruitful”.

Ms Gray was asked to conduct an internal probe into leaks at Stormont during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Covid-19 Inquiry has heard the endeavour failed to identity the source or sources of the leaks.

The ex-senior civil servant compared the approach within central government where, she said, the independent adviser on ministers’ interests would often be asked to take on such investigations.

She said she was not aware of a similar mechanism at Stormont.

“When I was here, I was asked to conduct a leak investigation,” she said.

“I think it related to some messages from somebody’s phone which, I think, a journalist, I can’t remember the exact detail, had recovered or had seen those messages.

“You know, what you can do is you can obviously, if it’s an official phone, you can check the official phone records to see if calls were made, or around that time you can also check any messages that they’ve also sent. But obviously on a personal phone you don’t have that opportunity. And I think on the investigation we did, we used all of our internal resources to try to identify what had happened. But I think that sometimes an independent investigation, actually just the nature of an independent investigation, can be fruitful.”

Ms Gray said people who want to leak will invariably find a way to do it.

However, she said certain processes could be used, such as banning phones from confidential ministerial meetings, to limit the opportunities to leak. She said establishing a culture where leaking is not tolerated was also important. She said that culture should be set by the parties’ leadership, including their ministers.

The inquiry has heard how discussions at several high-pressured Executive meetings during the pandemic were effectively live-tweeted by journalists who were being leaked the information in real time.

Ms Gray was asked what the reaction would be if something similar unfolded at a Cabinet meeting in London.

“I think that would be a terrible thing and it would be seen for that,” she said.

Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett made clear her focus on the practice of leaking during the pandemic was not related to “legitimate whistle-blowers”, rather leaks for “political advantage”.

The Stormont Assembly has been urged to “bloody well get on” and fix issues exposed by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Brenda Campbell KC, acting for Bereaved Families for Justice NI, said the three weeks of hearings held in Belfast had been “very difficult” for the bereaved.

Making her closing submissions on Thursday, Ms Campbell said the last three weeks have been “littered with oversights, omissions and feelings”.

She described “devastating evidence” exposing a “dysfunctional system”.

For Covid-19 bereaved families, she said every omission, oversight or failure “represents a fork in the road” and a “missed opportunity that had it not been made, might mean the person they loved and lost would still be here”.

Ms Campbell referred to the attendance of former deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill and Sinn Fein ministers at a large-scale funeral for senior republican Bobby Storey despite lockdown restrictions in June 2020 as “breathtakingly insensitive”, causing “hurt, anger and outraged” to bereaved.

She also criticised the “deliberate and orchestrated deployment of a cross-community vote” by the DUP over Covid-19 restrictions in autumn 2020, quoting Justice Minister Naomi Long’s assessment of it as an “egregious abuse of power”.

Ms Campbell said while the findings of the inquiry have not been delivered yet, administrative and political leaders can address issues now.

She concluded: “Many gaps have been exposed, promises to learn lessons have been made from the witness box. There is a great deal of work to be done by those who represent us.

“In the words of the late Mo Mowlam, the message from the Northern Ireland Bereaved to those who represent us is now ‘bloody well get on and do it”’.