Northern Ireland

Executive challenged over worth of meetings with officials while Stormont was down

The parties regularly met Jayne Brady and other senior civil servants to prepare a Programme for Government

Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Dr Jayne Brady (Liam McBurney/PA)
Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Jayne Brady. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA

Stormont’s leaders have been challenged to explain what was achieved by 18 months of meetings involving senior civil servants and the executive parties during the institutions’ recent dormancy.

From September 2022 through to the weeks leading up to the ending of the DUP’s devolution boycott, the head of the regional civil service Jayne Brady and other senior officials had regular engagement with representatives of Sinn Féin, the DUP, Alliance and Ulster Unionists.

The meetings were designed to discuss Stormont’s finances and preparations for a Programme for Government, in the expectation that the institutions would be restored.

The politicians and officials were latterly split into groups reflecting each department’s responsibilities.

First Minister Michelle O’Neill (left) and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly
First Minister Michelle O’Neill (left) said a Programme for Government would be in place for the summer

The executive has still not produced a policy plan for the current mandate, with First Minister Michelle O’Neill recently indicating that the Programme for Government would be “in place for the summer”.

The coalition administration signed-off its 2024/25 budget on Thursday.

The Executive Office did not respond to questions from The Irish News regarding the meetings between what was then the prospective executive parties and senior civil servants.

Stormont Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole said it was important that details of the meetings were made public to avoid a potential public perception that the exercise was an “expensive waste of time”.

“The executive parties engaged with the civil service for around 18 months before the restoration of the assembly and we were told they were working on a Programme for Government,” the South Belfast MLA said.

“Now, almost three months into this new government and there is nothing to show for all that work apart from £1.5 billion in uncosted executive promises.

“It is important that we understand what was actually happening at those meetings, what agreement was reached and what plans the civil service put in place to manage the outcomes – otherwise the conclusion that people will draw is that it was an expensive waste of time.”