RHI inquiry: NI Civil Service lacks specialists, says economist

RHI inquiry chairman, Sir Patrick Coghlin
RHI inquiry chairman, Sir Patrick Coghlin

A senior Stormont economist has said that the Northern Ireland Civil Service operates “on a shoestring” in comparison to Whitehall, with most staff lacking in specialist expertise for a specific policy area.

In comments which implicitly raise fresh questions about how many complex powers a small devolved region like Northern Ireland can competently handle, Shane Murphy said that it was not possible for economists in the Northern Ireland Civil Service to specialise as happens for their Whitehall counterparts.

The RHI inquiry has already been told that most of those working within the civil service are “generalists” who have little expertise in the policy area where they are placed and that no one in Stormont’s renewable heat team had any expertise in energy matters when they were appointed.

Referring to the analytical services unit (ASU) which he headed up, Mr Murphy said: “Although ‘analysts’, ASU staff would not have been dedicated specialists in the analysis of a particular policy area. So, for example, ASU would not have had a team, or even an individual staff member, that was fully dedicated to energy analysis never mind to the analysis of renewable energy.”

Mr Murphy’s comments have particular weight because he is now the chief economist at the Department for the Economy with responsibility for the potential devolution of corporation tax powers to Stormont – one of the most complex and potentially costly powers which Stormont may be given.

He said: “This is just a personal opinion but at times there’s a tension. There’s a desire to follow GB because those things are known ... they’ve done a lot of work and there’s a lot of safety in that.

“But then there’s also a desire to be distinctive and tailored to Northern Ireland’s circumstances ... there’s that inherent tension between doing something which is off the shelf; they are easy to follow and easy to implement ... but with a devolved set of institutions that have the ability to go their own way there’s also that desire to use that [power].”

He added: “I don’t think this is special to DETI but is a feature of devolution and of Northern Ireland.”