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Political news

Concern over Stormont official signing agreement with China

David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, signing a Memorandum of Understanding with Wang Dawei, vice governor of China's Liaoning province
Brendan Hughes

CONCERNS have been raised over a senior Stormont official signing Memoranda of Understanding with the Chinese government in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive.

Two agreements were signed by civil service chief David Sterling, one with representatives of China's Hubei province and another with Liaoning province.

It came as Belfast hosted the UK-China regional leaders' summit at the weekend, with some 100 delegates taking part in the three-day event.

An image showing the documents being signed was published on the executive's website on Monday.

The memoranda were described as "extending existing co-operation across economic development, education, research exchange and culture".

Civil servants have been running Stormont departments since the power-sharing government collapsed earlier this year.

There have been questions over officials making some decisions in the absence of an executive, but claiming others require ministerial sign-off.

Unions have called for decisions to taken on public sector pay rises, while there is also pressure to implement Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry recommendations delivered almost a year ago.

Officials have also been criticised for a "pick and mix" approach to publishing government reports.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew said he was deeply concerned about a disparity in how decisions are being handled.

"On the one hand, we are seeing a refusal to sign off on long-overdue reports, with the result that serious work backlogs are starting to build up," he said.

"Then on the other hand, there seems to be no problem with a senior civil servants signing a Memorandum of Understanding with China, a key decision that should have been subject to the scrutiny of our political representatives.

"What we need is maximum transparency from all our departments with civil servants making it a priority to communicate with the people of Northern Ireland as much as possible."

The Executive Office said: "The proposal to bring the summit to Northern Ireland was submitted by The Executive Office's Bureau in Beijing and was approved by the executive in November 2016.

"Executive ministers were involved in helping to secure the summit and were supportive of the summit and the executive's strategy for China."

A spokesman said each memorandum was a "statement of intent that the two sides will actively explore the areas of cooperation already agreed in the executive's strategy for China".

"It would not be unusual for a senior official to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on co-operation with another region."

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