Elected representatives return to Northern Ireland Assembly

By on 13/01/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, has promised extra funding for the region. (Photo by Chris McAndrew).

Civil servants in Northern Ireland are to once again work under the direction of elected leaders, three years after the province’s government was dissolved. The stalemate between the region’s two main political parties was broken after the British and Irish governments agreed a deal on Friday – which includes extra funding, and the promise of improved transparency and accountability – to restore devolution.

Since the collapse of the Northern Ireland administration following a fallout between coalition parties Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in January 2017, civil servants have had to keep public services going without the guidance of ministers.

Now that a deal has been struck, they should soon be able to move forward on delivering new policies and improving public services, both of which suffered during the deadlock.

The deal is outlined in a 62-page document titled New Decade, New Approach, which was presented by secretary of state for Northern Ireland Julian Smith and Irish Tanaiste Simon Coveney last week.

The first section, which sets out the priorities of the restored executive, states that the parties “have agreed on a way forward for a restored executive to begin the urgent task of strengthening public services and to tackle immediate challenges… such as the economy, overcrowded hospitals, struggling schools, housing stress, welfare concerns and mental health”.   

The deal includes extra funding for Northern Ireland – the document cites a “multi-year Programme for Government, underpinned by a multi-year budget and legislative programme” – though the exact amount of additional funding is not yet known.

It also promises the creation of two “language commissioners” in a bid to remove barriers that have blocked previous attempts to revive the assembly, plus improved accountability – including the need for civil servants to record ministerial meetings – and examination of the behavioural standards governing how civil servants, ministers and special advisors conduct themselves.

End of stalemate

Reaching a deal has not come easily. The stalemate between Sinn Féin and the DUP, sparked by flaws in a DUP-led green energy scheme, had been prolonged by arguments over issues such as the status of Ireland’s indigenous Gaelic language as well as by the DUP’s power in Westminster. Following the 2017 UK general election, then-prime minister Theresa May depended on the DUP’s 10 Commons MPs for her Parliamentary majority – meaning that the DUP could exert huge influence in Westminster while Sinn Féin, whose MPs refuse to recognise the UK Parliament’s right to govern Northern Ireland and do not take their seats in the House of Commons, had none.

The pressure to restore power-sharing grew after last month’s UK general election, when Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won an 80-seat majority and the DUP and Sinn Féin’s share of the vote decreased significantly. The Northern Ireland result – which saw the DUP lose two seats in Westminster, including that held by the party’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds – was widely seen as punishment by voters for the political dysfunction.

Civil service under stress

Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS), David Sterling – who announced plans to retire last month – had repeatedly called for the restoration of power-sharing. He said in July last year that he and his colleagues badly missed working under the direction and control of democratically elected and accountable leaders, adding that it was “unacceptable” that officials had been left responsible for making decisions that would otherwise be left up to ministers.

Last week, with a deal imminent, Smith thanked civil servants for “24/7 dedication and support”. However, Dave Penman, general secretary at the FDA union, feels that civil servants have not been given enough recognition for their work during the deadlock. In a sarcastic tweet posted when the parties returned to the Assembly on 11 January, he said: “I’m sure the 23,000 civil servants in Northern Ireland, who have kept public services operating in the most extraordinary of circumstances, will be heartened by the effusive praise heaped upon them today by ministers from across the political spectrum at Stormont”. The tweet included a tumbleweed graphic.  

New NIO permanent secretary

News of the deal follows the announcement on 7 January that Madeleine Alessandri has been appointed permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO). She will replace Sir Jonathan Stephens, who announced in October 2019 that he would be retiring from the civil service after three decades – including six years leading the NIO.

Alessandri is currently serving as the UK deputy national security advisor and prime minister’s adviser on national resilience and security.

Cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill said in a statement that Alessandri is an “exceptional public servant who embodies the very best that the civil service has to offer. With extensive experience in the diplomatic service and in the delivery of HMG priorities, she will be an excellent addition to the Northern Ireland Office at an important time”.

David Sterling announced his intention to retire as head of the civil service in December. He will step down from his role at the end of August.

“The last three years have been among the most challenging and difficult for the NI civil service. It has been an honour and a privilege to lead the organisation during these exceptional times,” he tweeted.

It is not yet known who will replace him.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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