Greater transparency needed at Stormont – and on new post too

There has been an intriguing development at the Department of Finance.

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

A ‘Head of Communications and Engagement’ post has been created, at two grades higher than that for normal press officers in the department.

Responsibilities of the new appointee will include overseeing the press office and Freedom of Information.

The position was not advertised outside the civil service and is said to be part of a push for transparency at Stormont.

It was created by Sue Gray, the permanent secretary, and at short notice. Ms Gray, who ran a bar outside Newry in the 1980s, was described by a BBC Newsnight journalist as perhaps the “most secretive”civil servant.

In fairness to the person who has been appointed to his new communications and engagement role, and to those who created it, it is reasonable at this stage to assume it this is a genuine attempt to increase transparency in government.

The RHI scandal has exposed serious shortcomings in how Stormont operated, including what seemed like a potential for departments to be influenced in a party political way, and also a tendency towards secrecy, for example civil servants not minuting meetings.

It also exposed serious shortcomings in the civil service.

We will learn the findings of the RHI inquiry in due course and will be able to consider afresh the way Stormont has been run. One thing that we know already is that RHI is far from the only example of governing incompetence in recent years.

But we will also need, in the spirit of transparency, some more transparency on the decision to create this post.

It might indeed be the right way to go, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that there are severe pressures on health and other departments, particularly since Sinn Fein has been allowed to collapse devolution until it gets an Irish language act, and that in the meantime this is yet another press position, paying up to £80,000 a year, on top of Stormont’s already considerable press operation.