The logjam at Stormont caused by the absence of either devolved or direct rule ministers now extends to more than 160 important decisions which civil servants cannot take.
Details released under the Freedom of Information Act show that across every Stormont department there is now a significant backlog of issues which are unable to be resolved unless the DUP and Sinn Fein agree to restore power-sharing or Secretary of State Karen Bradley institutes direct rule.
It is far from clear whether Ms Bradley’s recent Westminster legislation to give civil servants more powers which would allow them to take some ministerial decisions will have much impact on reducing the number of stalled issues.
Last month the head of the civil service, David Sterling, candidly said that even with Ms Bradley’s legislation there would be huge problems for governing Northern Ireland without ministers.
He told the RHI Inquiry that the move by the secretary of state was “going to create expectations that the civil service will be doing things which we probably will not be able to do.
“So, this is going to be an intensely difficult period in which we know we need to change culture and introduce other organisational changes as well.”
He added that the situation Northern Ireland finds itself in – operating for almost two years without ministers – “would not be tolerated anywhere else in these islands”.
The list of untaken decisions emerged via Freedom of Information requests. A request by this newspaper three weeks ago revealed a list of over 100 decisions. However, a list obtained by the Belfast Telegraph contains 164 decisions.
Stormont Castle stressed that it was not a complete list because “it is not possible to specify the terms in which any request for a decision may be put to ministers”.
However, the Executive Office said that it expected the list it released to contain many of the proposals which will be put to them “at an early stage” if there is either a restoration of devolution or a move to direct rule.
The decisions cover every Stormont department with the exception of the Department of Finance, which did not include a response.
The decisions which have built up include:
• Whether to close or merge schools which are judged unviable;
• A series of major planning applications of Northern Ireland-wide importance;
• An action plan to root out paramilitarism;
• Dozens of public appointments;
• Plans for superfast broadband;
• Use of recycled manure solids on farms;
• Funding for safety improvements at football stadiums;
• Welfare reform mitigation schemes;
• Radical reforms in health and education.
There is some evidence, however, that Ms Bradley’s legislation to give civil servants some powers of ministers is having an effect. The list initially included the inability to raise pay for health workers. However, this week civil servants agreed to a policy which will see that happen.
Calling for direct rule ministers, UUP leader Robin Swann said the revelation showed that “government is grinding to a halt”. He added: “Karen Bradley MP wouldn’t stand for it in her own constituency, so I don’t see why the people of Northern Ireland should have to stand for it either”.