Union boss attacks ‘dysfunctional’ failure to appoint Northern Ireland chief

By on 16/10/2020 | Updated on 16/10/2020
Dave Penman: “The people of Northern Ireland deserve better and that requires a strong, permanent, professional and impartial civil service.” (Photo by John Wellings).

The failure of Northern Ireland’s first and deputy first minister to appoint the next head of the province’s civil service is an “abdication of responsibility”, union boss Dave Penman has said.

Penman, general secretary of the FDA union representing senior civil servants, pulled no punches in an opinion piece published by NewsLetter. “In a crowded field of political abdications of responsibility, this one from the elected leaders of Northern Ireland is vying for the Oscar,” he wrote.

David Sterling, the former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS), stepped down at the end of August after 42 years’ service, having given nine months’ notice of his intention to retire.

According to Penman, ministers prevaricated before a national recruitment exercise was launched, overseen by the independent Civil Service Commission. This produced three final candidates, all of whom were considered appointable by the recruitment panel. But Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill, the province’s first and deputy first minister – who are responsible for interviewing and choosing from this final shortlist, under rules introduced a decade ago – “completely failed to appoint a replacement” and left “no opportunity for a handover,” Penman wrote. 

He argues that although appointing a new NICS head “may not be at the forefront of people’s minds given the public health and economic emergencies we’re facing”, the pandemic “is exactly why it’s so important” to have someone in place to lead the civil service.

Failure of leadership

“As the government grapples with COVID-19 and Brexit, it is vital the civil service has someone to lead, inspire and reform it as it faces the many challenges ahead,” Penman wrote. “The failure to appoint a new head is not only a failure of collective leadership but demonstrates the dysfunctionality of a process that allows elected ministers to put party politics over public interest.”

He added that while the first and deputy first minister must help shape the job description and have confidence in whoever is selected to lead the NICS, “this debacle clearly demonstrates they should not have the final say on the appointment of civil servants at any level,” adding that “the separation of the powers from ministers to hire and fire… makes for better government”.

“The people of Northern Ireland deserve better and that requires a strong, permanent, professional and impartial civil service,” he concluded.  

Sterling led the civil service through one of the most difficult periods in its history: the three years when, following the collapse of the Sinn Fein-DUP administration in January 2017, Northern Ireland had no executive or assembly. The civil service had to work without the direction of ministers until power-sharing was restored in January this year.

Sterling was recognised for his work in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, announced last week.

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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