Top man running Northern Ireland will leave at the end of June

Sir Malcolm McKibbin has been in complete control of devolved government decision-making for more than two months
Sir Malcolm McKibbin has been in complete control of devolved government decision-making for more than two months

The most senior person running Northern Ireland in the absence of any government ministers has delayed his retirement for the second time.

Sir Malcolm McKibbin, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, has been in complete control of devolved government decision-making for more than two months due to the inability of the DUP and Sinn Fein to form a power-sharing Executive.

Sir Malcolm had been due to retire in January – the month when Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness collapsed the last Executive, triggering an Assembly election – but delayed his departure until the end of April because his successor had not yet been selected.

Today, Sir Malcolm wrote to all civil servants to say that he has now delayed his retirement until the end of June.

However, it is not clear what would happen if an Executive has not been formed by the end of next month and Sir Malcolm does not agree to further delay his retirement.

The rules for the replacement of the Head of the Civil Service state that they must be selected jointly by the First Minister and deputy First Minister - a change made last year which makes Northern Ireland the only part of the UK in which politicians alone conduct the final stage interviews for top Civil Service posts.

When asked how Sir Malcolm’s successor will now be chosen in the absence of any ministers, Stormont’s Executive Office declined to comment on what it described as “a live recruitment competition”.

A copy of Sir Malcolm’s letter seen by the News Letter states: “You will be aware that since early March, political discussions aimed at restoring the Executive have been ongoing.

“As a result of the announcement of the General Election on 8 June, the talks have been paused until just after the election.

“The Secretary of State has also introduced legislation at Westminster which extends the period for forming an Executive to 29 June 2017. The legislation received Royal Assent on 27 April.

“I have been heavily involved in the talks process to date and so, for reasons of continuity, I have agreed to defer my retirement date until 30 June.”

The two senior civil servants who were being considered to replace Sir Malcolm were David Sterling, the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance, and Andrew McCormick, the permanent secretary of the Department for the Economy.

At various points during the creation and operation of the RHI scheme, they were the most senior officials at the then Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).

Both men have accepted responsibility for the failures of the department on their watch.