Northern Ireland news

First and deputy first ministers criticised over failure to appoint new civil service head

Former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, who retired from the post in August. Picture by Niall Carson
Paul Ainsworth

THE failure of the first and deputy first ministers to appoint a new head of the north's civil service has been criticised.

Following interviews with three candidates by Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill on Wednesday, the Executive Office confirmed that an appointment to the post was not made.

The candidates for the powerful role, which carries a £188,272 salary, are all understood to have been Stormont permanent secretaries: Sue Gray from the Department of Finance, the Department of Justice's Peter May, and Richard Pengelly of the Department of Health.

The position became vacant in August when David Sterling retired after 40 years in the civil service.

A spokesman for the Executive Office confirmed that no decision was made following the interviews, adding: "Next steps are currently being considered."

The chair of Stormont's Executive Office committee, the SDLP's Colin McGrath, said the failure to appoint a successor to Mr Sterling was "inconceivable" given he announced his retirement 10 months ago.

"It is 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," he said.

"This speaks to total dysfunctionality. 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."

Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken also claimed the lack of appointment "exposes the inadequacies of the current system".

"There has been a 10-month lead-in to this point and the failure of this appointment process, coupled with the late advertisement of the role, raises serious concerns," he said.

Allan Simpson, national officer at the FDA civil service union, said the failure to fill the role was "very disappointing news".

"Ministers must now set out why they have made this decision and what their plan is to provide the Northern Ireland Civil Service with the leadership it needs at this critical time."

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