Shrunken NIO goes on big recruitment drive

Stormont House in Belfast.
Stormont House in Belfast.

The Northern Ireland Office is going on a hiring spree, reversing years of declining staff numbers amid growing pressure for it to step in and take more decisions about issues which are nominally devolved but which cannot be taken without a Stormont Executive.

The NIO has advertised internally among members of the devolved civil service asking for 25 experienced policy advisers and senior policy advisers in what represents a significant beefing up of Karen Bradley’s department.

However, two Stormont civil service sources played down suggestions that the move is part of a build up to direct rule by the NIO, which has radically shrunk over the last decade and now has just 157 staff.

Mrs Bradley’s department has advertised for ten senior policy advisers to work in its ‘emerging priorities team’. Copies of the internal advertisement seen by the News Letter show that the officials will be at grade seven on the civil service scale, indicating that they will be experienced officials with significant policy responsibilities just beneath the senior civil service.

The roles will be based in Belfast with “occasional travel to London expected”.

The job descriptions present working at the NIO as “exciting”, saying: “As the Government continues to negotiate its Exit from the European Union, to operate in partnership with the Democratic Unionist Party via a confidence and supply agreement, and to seek to restore devolved Government in Northern Ireland, there has never been a more exciting time to work at the heart of the Northern Ireland Office.”

It describes the ‘emerging priorities team’ as a “high-performing, fast-paced team at the heart of the NIO, established to help tackle the department’s most high-priority challenges”.

The adverts state that the roles could involve working on Brexit, attempting to restore devolution, working on fiscal, economic or domestic policy, working on Troubles legacy policy or work on national security.

Prospective candidates have been told that “a knowledge of Northern Irish affairs is not essential” but that they will need “strong political awareness”.

The staff are to be on a two-year secondment from the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The NIO is also advertising for a further 15 policy advisers

The roles have also been advertised in Whitehall, where civil servants have been told that there will be salaries for each of the posts of up to £69,659 in London and up to £62,265 in Belfast.

In a statement, the NIO said: “This is a competition for resources to meet the department’s ongoing needs. Staff will be allocated in line with the departmental strategic priorities.”

Writing in the NIO’s annual report and accounts last week, permanent secretary Sir Jonathan Stephens said: “To support the delivery of these objectives, the Northern Ireland Office has had to continue to transform so that we are fit for the future. The senior leadership team has been reinforced by the appointment of a third director. We are strengthening our longer-term resourcing.”

In January, the News Letter revealed that the NIO had created a new ‘senior policy adviser’ role covering two devolved areas – gay marriage and abortion. The NIO claimed that the role was not new, but subsequently admitted that was wrong.