Public services “crying out” for political leadership, says Northern Ireland’s civil service chief

By on 31/07/2019 | Updated on 05/08/2019
David Sterling is against a return to direct rule but suggested it might be necessary in the event of a No Deal Brexit unless the Northern Ireland Executive is reformed. (Image courtesy: Candice McKenzie / IfG via Flickr).

Civil servants are used to working without ministers during election campaigns or coalition negotiations. But Northern Ireland’s officials have been without elected leaders for two and a half years – and as the province’s permanent secretary David Sterling explained recently, its public services and Brexit preparations are paying the price. Mia Hunt reports

What happens when civil servants must work without the direction of elected leaders? Since the collapse of the Northern Ireland administration following a fallout between coalition parties Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) two and a half years ago, David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS), and his colleagues, have had to find out.

They have, in Sterling’s words, been “keeping the show on the road, balancing the books and keeping the business of government going” – but Northern Ireland is nonetheless suffering as a result of the lack of elected leaders.

“I don’t report to anybody. I have no boss. There are no Assembly scrutiny committees,” Sterling said earlier this month, at an event at think tank the Institute for Government’s London HQ. “People joke that civil servants would see this as being heaven, but that’s far from the truth. We work in a system where we are expected to be under the direction and control of ministers: ministers who are democratically elected and democratically accountable. I think I can speak on behalf of all of my colleagues when I say we miss that, and we miss that badly.” 

Sterling said there hasn’t yet been a “cliff edge moment” for the civil service since ministers left Stormont, but the lack of fresh policy has led to “stagnation” in public services. Some fields of delivery are “crying out” for transformation and political leadership, he said, citing unacceptably long waiting lists for health services, budgetary pressures on schools, and social housing maintenance issues.

And the civil service cannot entirely avoid making decisions: NICS has, said Sterling, had “to walk a fine line” on matters which would normally be decided by ministers. Last year, a court ruled that a department’s decision to grant approval for a £240m (US$322m) waste disposal facility on the outskirts of Belfast was unlawful, making clear the limits of civil servants’ executive powers in the absence of a democratic mandate.

Quite when ministers will return and take control of policy, no one knows. “Sadly, the limbo that we’ve been suffering for the last few years is in danger of becoming the new normal in Northern Ireland,” Sterling said.  

Return to direct rule?  

The DUP and Sinn Féin are in talks to end the deadlock and return to Stormont. (Image courtesy: rovingl via Flickr).

But can this “new normal” continue in the event of a No Deal Brexit – an outcome likely to demand fast decision-making on issues around security, border management and economic stabilisation?

One option would be for Westminster to reimpose direct rule, formally suspending the power-sharing executive and Northern Ireland Assembly established under the 1999 Good Friday Agreement – which ended the 30-year Troubles. Sterling is very clear that this would be a bad outcome: “We don’t want to be without ministers, but you cannot beat having your own locally elected ministers run your administrations; it is better than any of the alternatives,” he said.

However, he added that if faced with a No Deal Brexit, it wouldn’t be “acceptable” for officials to be left without political leadership.

Talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin to try and end the deadlock resumed on 7 May, and Sterling said he has “seen evidence” that suggests the two parties are keen to get back to Stormont and “get to grips” with the issues around Brexit. DUP leader Arlene Foster told the BBC on 21 July that “serious negotiations” are taking place to try to restore devolution to Stormont, though she added that her party and Sinn Féin have “significant gaps to close”.

The restoration of power sharing in Northern Ireland will not come easily. The stalemate between Sinn Féin and the DUP, sparked by flaws in a DUP-led green energy scheme, has been prolonged by arguments over issues such as the status of Ireland’s indigenous Gaelic language. And ever since the UK 2017 general election, outgoing UK prime minister Theresa May has depended on the DUP’s 10 Commons MPs for her Parliamentary majority – meaning that the DUP can exert 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, has none.

‘Things will be different’

When the political impasse ends – by whatever means – civil servants will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief: the last two and a half years have been a mighty challenge for Northern Ireland’s civil service. But as Sterling highlights, there are positives to take from the situation – not least a desire to improve the system when ministers do eventually return to Stormont. 

In the past, “there were many issues where it was very difficult or impossible to get an agreement between the parties,” said Sterling. “I think one of the downsides of the mechanism in the past was when it was found not to resolve issues when [the two parties] couldn’t get agreement and things stayed on the shelf for a long time. That is one of the things that is being talked about in the negotiations. It would need to be different going forward.”   

The inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, whose failure led to the collapse of power-sharing, could, Sterling added, be a force for good – not only in making sure similar mistakes don’t happen again, but also in highlighting the need for more coordinated executive activity.

Discouraging signs

Sterling said he and his colleagues missed being under the direction and control of democratically elected and democratically accountable ministers – “we miss that, and we miss that badly”. (Image courtesy: Candice McKenzie / IfG via Flickr).

Coordination will certainly be needed if Northern Ireland is to navigate the challenges posed by Brexit. Sterling has been vocal about the impact Brexit could have on the province, and reiterated many of his concerns during the IfG event.

He pointed out that for several years Northern Ireland has been the UK’s highest performing region for foreign direct investment outside London and the South East, but said there were “discouraging signs” in the investment landscape and business sentiment. The latest purchase manager index, conducted in June, showed that the Northern Ireland private sector had been contracting for several months. It has experienced the strongest reduction in output since November 2012, while business sentiment has fallen for the fifth time in five months and is now the lowest of all 12 UK regions.

He also highlighted analysis published by the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy, which suggested Brexit could cause a sharp increase in unemployment and severe consequences – both for Northern Ireland’s competitiveness and its place in the UK internal market, and for the all-Ireland economy.

“The Northern Ireland economy is already showing worrying signs, which means it may not be in a position to absorb any shocks from a No Deal Brexit,” he said, adding that the absence of the executive means that the civil service hasn’t been able to respond as “well as we should have been” to Brexit issues.

While the civil service is putting in place all reasonable measures to mitigate risk, said Sterling, its assessment is that No Deal would have a “long lasting, negative impact on Northern Ireland’s economy and society” – a position mirrored in a letter Sterling sent to Northern Ireland’s main political parties in March, after which he was publicly attacked by MPs. 

His primary concerns are the impact on Northern Ireland’s export market, including on agriculture and tradable services such as ICT; rising consumer costs, particularly increasing food costs; and on how No Deal Brexit would affect the behaviour of border communities. If Brexit leads to differing prices or regulations on each side of the border, for example, there’s the risk of “exploitation of differentials by organised crime groups that could lead to an increase in smuggling and evasion”.

All told, the prospect of a No Deal Brexit without political leadership is clearly one that leaves Sterling deeply worried. “I think the range of challenges that we would face would be such that it would be wrong to leave the civil service in that position, and I know direct rule has been mooted in those circumstances,” he said.

Sterling’s suggestion that direct rule – which, he says, the NICS strongly opposes – might be the only option if the UK were to leave the EU without a deal shows just how desperate civil servants are to be under the direction of leaders for what could be a decidedly bumpy road ahead.

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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