RHI inquiry: unacceptable to leave us in charge, says top civil servant

Northern Ireland’s most senior civil servant has said it is “unacceptable” that civil servants are being left to run Northern Ireland without ministers.

David Sterling also said that when ministers return there needs to be a more “honest” message to them from the civil service about the limits of what officials in a small devolved administration can deliver.

David Sterling yesterday gave evidence at the RHI inquiry for a third day

David Sterling yesterday gave evidence at the RHI inquiry for a third day

The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service did not specify that there had to be ‘devolved ministers’, something which could hint at civil service frustration at the limbo in which they find themselves with the DUP and Sinn Fein unable to agree to form a devolved administration and the government refusing to formally implement direct rule by putting in Westminster ministers to run departments.

In January Mr Sterling told a Westminster committee that there was an urgent need for “ministerial intervention” if the Stormont talks fail, something which would have to involve a form of direct rule. He also revealed that contingency planning was under way for the possibility of Westminster taking charge, although he made clear that it was his strong preference to see local ministers in place.

The DUP-Sinn Fein talks ongoing at that point did collapse but the government has said that it has no plans to implement direct rule.

In evidence to the public inquiry into the RHI scandal, Mr Sterling yesterday said: “At the moment, obviously, we’ve been 14-odd months without ministers. We look forward to ministers returning because we need ministerial direction.

“It’s unacceptable that we’re having to deliver public services in Northern Ireland without ministerial direction. But we have to play the ball as we find it.”

He went on: “But when we do get ministerial direction again, we’re going to have to be more honest and have more robust conversations about what we can and cannot deliver with the resources that are available to us and that may lead to some difficult conversations, but as head of the civil service I have to accept that we cannot afford to put our people at risk of being asked to deliver something for which they are not adequately resourced or equipped.”

Mr Sterling also spoke bluntly about how seriously the revelations about civil service incompetence during the RHI scandal had undermined public confidence in the professionalism of officials in Stormont departments.

He said: “People will have looked at the impact which RHI has had on the reputation of the [civil] service.

“I think there’s a very clear sense across the whole of the civil service now that even though this was something that occurred within a small area of a small division of a small department, it has raised questions about the civil service and the civil service’s capability and capacity.

“We take that very seriously and I think we know that we have a job to do to rebuild confidence in the general public that we’re capable of delivering.”

He added: “I realise those are only words and we will be judged on our actions.”

Mr Sterling said that every day 23,000 civil servants go to work “and by and large they are delivering very good service to this community”.