Northern Ireland

Parties met senior civil servants 100 times before returning to Stormont

Civil service head Jayne Brady said the meetings were ‘laying the groundwork’ for Stormont’s return

Jayne Brady, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, gave evidence to MLAs
Head of the regional civil service Jayne Brady. PICTURE: NIALL CARSON/PA (Niall Carson/PA)

The executive parties met with senior civil servants “100 times” in the lead up to the return of Stormont, it has now emerged, but have yet to publish plans for failing public services.

Despite spending many days “laying the groundwork” ahead of Stormont’s restoration in February, the executive has still not produced a programme for government.

Earlier this week, First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the policy plan would be delayed due to the forthcoming general election.

The Sinn Féin deputy leader said it was going to be “very difficult” to publish the programme for government because of purdah, the rules governing ministerial announcements during the election campaign.

The assembly to rise for summer recess the day after the Westminster poll.

In April, Ms O’Neill said the executive hoped to have a draft plan, which will be followed by a three-month consultation period, “in place for the summer”.

SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole asked about the devolution of more fiscal powers to Stormont
Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole

The meetings with the prospective executive parties commenced after the May 2022 assembly election and included discussions around a future programme for government and a budget.

Regional civil service head Jayne Brady said in a press article four months later that the meetings with the parties were “to discuss the priorities they will pursue when they return”.

“These will be our missions: cross-cutting, innovative and focused programmes of work to tackle some of the most challenging issues we face, increased employability and productivity, green growth, and improving life opportunities,” she wrote in August 2022.

“Preparations have begun in these areas as we await the formation of a new executive, laying the groundwork where we can, for ministers to decide on the way forward.”

But Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole, who asked the Executive Office how many meetings had taken place, said the executive parties appeared “intent on dragging out the delivery” of their policy plan.

“We have been waiting for months for a programme for government, and the main excuse for not delivering one was the short time since Stormont returned,” the South Belfast MLA said.

“But now we know that executive parties had 100 meetings with civil servants between the 2022 assembly election and the restart of the institutions.”

Mr O’Toole said many of the meetings were billed as being “specifically about the priorities for a programme for government”.

“So what exactly were they talking about and why are the first ministers so intent on dragging out the delivery of programme for government and plan for rescuing public services when we now know executive parties have been talking about one for years.”