As the DUP and Sinn Féin re-entered talks yesterday, two significant developments added to the sense that steps are being taken to prepare for the possibility of direct rule if Stormont cannot be restored.
The two dominant parties were joined by the UUP, SDLP and Alliance for exploratory discussions with each other, hosted by Secretary of State Karen Bradley and with Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney in attendance.
However, while little of substance emerged publicly from those discussions in Parliament Buildings, developments elsewhere proved more revelatory.
In the House of Commons, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service revealed that contingency planning is under way for the possibility of Westminster taking charge.
In comments which seemed to call for direct rule ministers if the DUP and Sinn Féin cannot agree to govern, David Sterling told MPs there is an urgent need for “ministerial intervention” if the talks collapse again.
Mr Sterling made clear it was his strong preference to see local ministers in place.
But when asked if this time it really is a case of “agree a deal and get back into office or we’re going to have to do something else”, he said bluntly: “We really do look forward to an executive coming back, but if it doesn’t, we do need ministerial intervention.”
Not long after Mr Sterling had finished giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, his department issued a statement which revealed that a top Whitehall civil servant is to be appointed to run Stormont’s Department of Finance.
Sue Gray, who has been described as the most powerful woman in Britain and who recently conducted the government’s inquiry into Damian Green which led to the de facto deputy Prime Minister resigning, is making the surprise move from the Cabinet Office, where she has the title ‘director general, propriety and ethics team and head of private offices group’ to become permanent secretary of the Stormont department.
She will take up the post “over the next couple of months”.
Much remains unknown about the 60-year-old, who in the 1980s took a strikingly unorthodox career break to run a pub in Newry, a hotbed of IRA and security force activity.
In 2015, BBC Newsnight’s policy editor Chris Cook described Mrs Gray as “the most powerful civil servant you’ve never heard of” and “also perhaps the most secretive you could ever hope to meet”.
He said that she had “astounding” influence and was known “for her determination not to leave a document trail”.
He said that “even when a document trail exists, Ms Gray is enthusiastic about keeping it a secret”.
In his memoirs, former Lib Dem minister David Laws recounted a conversation with Conservative minister Oliver Letwin in which he said: “Our great United Kingdom is actually entirely run by a lady called Sue Gray, the Head of Ethics or something in the Cabinet Office.
“Unless she agrees, things just don’t happen.
“Cabinet reshuffles, departmental re-organisations, the whole lot – it’s all down to Sue Gray.
“Nothing moves in Whitehall unless Sue says so.”
The News Letter asked the Department of Finance three questions about Ms Gray – her exact salary, why she had made the unusual move, and whether she originally came from Northern Ireland.
The department declined to answer any of the questions.
It said that her salary would be somewhere between £114,047 and £133,327 and adding: “It would not be appropriate for the Department to comment on your other queries.
“These would be matters for the individual concerned.”
The department directed us to Mrs Gray’s official government biography, which is 64 words long.
MCE public relations, whose head of public affairs is Richard Bullick – the former DUP Spad who worked at the top of Stormont for a decade – said it was “potentially the most transformative appointment to the Northern Ireland Civil Service in recent years”.
He added that her appointment “will have significance far beyond the Department of Finance as the Northern Ireland Civil Service comes to terms with the outcome of the RHI Inquiry and the absence of ministers”.
Mrs Gray’s arrival comes at a point when the civil service’s reputation has been battered by a stream of revelations of incompetence which have emerged at the public inquiry into the RHI scandal.
Yesterday the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood tweeted his congratulations, saying that Mrs Gray had been “a central part of life and leadership of the Cabinet Office for over 20 years”.
He thanked her for “tireless, selfless and inspiring public service”.
Yesterday also saw the appointment of Denis McMahon – who is currently a deputy secretary in the Department for Communities – as permanent secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), while DAERA’s permanent secretary, Noel Lavery, moves to the Department for the Economy, taking on responsibility for the RHI scheme among other things.
Stormont Castle said that there had been 42 applicants for the positions, of which 21 had been listed for interview.
It said that further appointments may be made from the process up to the end of March 2019 and that the Executive Office’s Katrina Godfrey and Invest NI’s Tracy Meharg are the next two successful candidates on the list if vacancies arise.