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Editorial: Civil servants face impossible choices

Aeneas Bonner

IT would be difficult not to have some sympathy for Jayne Brady, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, who has been attempting to explain the invidious position that she and other senior officials find themselves in.

Ms Brady's 14 months in office have already seen her grapple with the impact of the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine and now the collapse of power-sharing government.

Since ministers departed office at the end of October, when a six-month deadline to restore an executive passed, civil servants have been left in charge of Stormont departments but with limited decision-making powers.

The crisis in the health service, public sector pay claims, and support for families facing soaring bills – all massive issues which have gone unaddressed because of the DUP's selfish boycott of the institutions.

The party withdrew its ministers before a budget could even be agreed to provide a measure of certainty for government officials at a time of enormous pressure on the public purse.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris has belatedly set a budget for this financial year and legislation being fast-tracked at Westminster will give permanent secretaries more scope to act.

However, Ms Brady has made clear that some major financial decisions simply cannot be made without an executive and will have to wait until MLAs return.

She has also warned of the depth of the current financial crisis.

Mr Heaton-Harris last week spoke of a £660m black hole, signalling that painful choices will have to be made. Education has already been earmarked for significant cuts.

Ms Brady has not said where other savings will be found but pledged that officials will act in the best interest of public services.

While it is clear that the secretary of state had to step in, it is intolerable that at a time when hospitals are overwhelmed, school budgets are squeezed and families cannot afford basic necessities, responsibility is falling on unelected officials rather the democratically accountable politicians.

It has long been clear that the DUP's protest action is having no impact on negotiations around the Northern Ireland Protocol or a British government which is prioritising self-preservation over the welfare of its citizens.

For the sake of civil servants facing impossible choices and all those suffering in the absence of an executive, the party should allow ministers to return to Stormont immediately and do the jobs they were elected for.

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