Business groups demand extra powers for Northern Ireland civil servants

By on 07/06/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Ann McGregor, chief executive of NICCI

Business leaders have called on the UK’s Northern Ireland secretary to grant the province’s civil servants extra powers in order to ease its political paralysis.

A group of 12 business associations in the province has written to Karen Bradley, asking her to consider introducing special legislative measures that would temporarily empower senior civil servants to take decisions that are “crucial to the prosperity of the region”.

The move comes after Belfast’s High Court ruled last month that a decision by civil servants in the province’s Department of Infrastructure (DoI) to approve a new incinerator project was unlawful because it was taken in the absence of ministers.

Special powers request

The DoI is appealing against the ruling and has pledged not to take any further decisions on “regionally significant” planning applications until the legal position of the Northern Ireland Civil Service has been clarified in the courts.

But the business associations, which include the Confederation of British Industry Northern Ireland (CBI NI) and the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NICCI), said in a statement that two possible legislative solutions should be considered in the meantime.

Firstly, the Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 could be temporarily amended to allow permanent secretaries to make decisions in the absence of a minister until devolution is restored. In parallel with the amendment, relevant statutory committees of the Northern Ireland Assembly could be reinstated to provide “additional scrutiny and transparency”.

Secondly, the decision-making powers of the province’s Planning Appeals Commission could be extended to include planning applications for “regionally significant” infrastructure.

Democratic deficit

Ann McGregor, chief executive of NICCI, said: “It is becoming more and more difficult to see how the Northern Ireland economy can develop and businesses prosper without having the necessary functions of government in place.

“There is no sign of Stormont being restored, there are no ministers in place to take vital decisions on critical issues and it now appears that no policy decisions of significance can be taken legally by senior civil servants. Northern Ireland’s credibility as a place in which to do business is suffering intolerably because of the political impasse.”

Adrian Doran, chair of the CBI NI Infrastructure Forum, said: “The business community’s overwhelming priority remains the return of an inclusive devolved government. But without a political resolution in sight, it is only right that we request that the secretary of state explore all alternative options.

“Policy paralysis is not acceptable, and we must all look for ways to remove the current handbrake on local economic and social progress. Both businesses and individuals deserve to have access to the basic everyday governance that is offered in all other regions.

“Last week’s incinerator decision exposed the fragility of current decision-making arrangements in the absence of ministers. The longer this uncertainty presides over local infrastructure decisions, the greater the risk to jobs and investment. Northern Ireland cannot be left in a decision-making limbo indefinitely.”

Indefinite stasis

The group said other key projects at risk due to the court judgment include the North-South Interconnector, which would link the electricity networks of Northern Ireland and Eire; Belfast Power Station; a trunk road upgrade; and an ultra-fast broadband project.

Northern Ireland has been run by civil servants since the power-sharing government collapsed in January last year, following a scandal over a green energy scheme. The two main parties failed to form a new Executive following a snap election in March, and there is no imminent prospect of the restoration of a Northern Ireland Assembly or Executive. The main unionist party, the DUP, has huge influence in Westminster through its role propping up Theresa May’s minority Conservative administration – and thus few incentives to enter a provincial power-sharing administration with its republican rivals Sinn Féin.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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