The NIO is recruiting a senior official to deal with two policy areas which under devolution are not its responsibility – gay marriage and abortion, the News Letter can reveal.
The internal civil service advertisement for the post is likely to fuel speculation that the government is considering its own policy on the controversial issues, even though until now it has remained neutral in both areas, saying that they are a matter for local politicians.
Yesterday the new Secretary of State Karen Bradley again said that she did not believe that Westminster should “impose” same-sex marriage on the Province over Stormont’s head.
And in a statement last night the NIO insisted that the new role should not be seen as evidence that it is preparing to take responsibility for areas which have until now been devolved.
The news emerges as talks aimed at restoring devolution are due to begin at Stormont today amid widespread gloom as to the prospects of them ending in success.
Unlike the last rounds of DUP-Sinn Féin talks, the five largest parties will be involved in the process.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme, Mrs Bradley yesterday reiterated that the government does not intend to step in and legislate for same-sex marriage at this point.
Mrs Bradley also denied that February 7 will be a deadline for the talks – something which Sinn Féin had said it understood to be the case – saying that she would instead just update the Commons on that date, with the possibility of the talks stretching beyond then.
And Mrs Bradley clarified that she will chair the talks, rather than co-chairing the process with the Irish government – although she said that she was not ruling anything out in terms of who should chair the process.
The advert – which was sent to members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service last month and obtained by this newspaper – says that the NIO is seeking to recruit a ‘Senior Policy Advisor’ for ‘Rights and Equality’.
The advert says: “The post holder will lead on a range of very high profile equality and rights issues within the NIO. This includes driving forward the government’s approach to issues around equal marriage, abortion and human rights in the context of EU Exit.”
It adds: “The post holder will also support discussions on the issue of culture and identity in the context of current political talks.
“They will also lead the department’s input into North-South and Identity issues relating to EU Exit.
“They will act as lead sponsor for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and will line manage a Band B policy advisor.”
The job is for those at grade seven or deputy principal grades, suggesting that the salary will be up to about £55,000.
The advert states: “The ongoing political impasse in Northern Ireland, the government’s Confidence and Supply Agreement with the DUP and the unique position of Northern Ireland in EU Exit discussions mean that the department’s role is now more challenging and under scrutiny than it has been at any point in the recent past.”
The post has been advertised alongside two others, one on “elections policy” and one on “legacy casework”.
Referring to all three roles, the advert said that “postholders will lead on some of the department’s key policy priorities in the crucial period ahead on rights and equality and in dealing with the past”.
It added that the three important roles would “be prominent within the individual teams as well as more broadly within the department, involving frequent contact with senior officials and ministers, as well as key partner departments in Whitehall and across the NICS, including MoD, security partners and the centre.”
The election policy role will involve “leading the development of the government’s policy on elections and donations policy in NI” with priorities to include “working to deliver legislation to allow for the transparency of political donations in NI”.
Responding to questions from this newspaper, in a statement, the NIO said: “The government is committed to restoring a functioning Executive and Assembly.
“We have no plans to intervene in these areas of devolved competence.
“The government does, however, receive a significant amount of correspondence on this matter (and indeed other devolved issues) from a range of interested parties, to which we need to respond.
“The job description is purely illustrative of the types of sensitive issues that are raised.
“Recruitment is currently under way.”