Servants will soon be running the big house
Posted By: February 02, 2017
In 2005, when it felt like devolution had been suspended indefinitely, I made a program for UTV Insight entitled Who Really Runs Northern Ireland?
The official answer to that question was the secretary of state plus the two or three direct rule Ministers at the Northern Ireland Office, who had taken charge of all Stormont’s departments.
My contention was that these occasional visitors to our shores had little meaningful role. Power had instead passed to each department’s top civil servant, known as its permanent secretary.
They were the real ministers under direct rule. Their collective structure, known as the permanent secretaries group, had become in effect a cabinet. The head of the civil service, chairing the group’s monthly meetings, had become our de facto first minister.
These were the people devising policy and strategy on most matters in Northern Ireland, with NIO ministers merely applying a rubber stamp. There was even evidence of ministers being frustrated when they tried to intervene.
The permanent secretaries are well named – most serve at this level for years, although they swap posts often. They are certainly not in it for the glory. All our interview requests were refused, and we had to resort to trawls under the Freedom of Information Act. Among the material this turned up was a memo on our request for photographs, advising they “should not be smiling ones.”
So Northern Ireland was run by philosopher kings – experienced technocrats driven only by professionalism, with not much less democratic legitimacy than direct rule itself. Had we stumbled upon Plato’s ideal government?
Sadly, no. I interviewed assembly members from Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee, which held the civil service to account before the suspension.
They spoke of one administrative disaster after another, with the permanent secretaries showing “solidarity” and deliberately shuffling themselves around to avoid the blame.
Under direct rule, Stormont’s oversight role passed to Westminster’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC). Its members told us they were appalled by the amateurism – and worse – they had uncovered in Belfast, despite having relatively little time to devote to it.
Watching MPs grilling the permanent secretaries was excruciating.
At one PAC hearing, a senior Tory reported telling his Secretary on receipt of a Stormont file. “It’s from Northern Ireland, so it will be full of fraud and incompetence – and it is.”
Other PAC verdicts included “waffle,” “ripping off the taxpayer,” “turning a blind eye to fraud” and “the worst report I’ve ever read.”
All this took place more than a decade ago, and the senior personnel at Stormont has changed.
But we are now heading for another period of bureaucratic autopilot, with an even less ideal scenario in prospect.
An executive needs to be in place within three weeks of the March 2 election, while a budget must be agreed by March 28, three working days before the end of the public sector’s financial year.
If this does not happen – and the budget deadline, in particular, looks implausible – the permanent secretary at the department of finance is required, by the law enacting the Good Friday Agreement, to impose an emergency budget. This is capped at 75 per cent of the previous year’s budget until July 31, after which spending across the whole financial year must be capped at 95 per cent of the previous year’s budget.
Stormont’s deadlock could last well beyond these deadlines, yet the British government is insisting it will not reinstate direct rule. So the permanent secretaries will officially be running Northern Ireland, without ministers of any description. At first, they will simply continue existing programmes but soon they will face meaningful political decisions – the health service already has urgent needs implying cuts elsewhere.
Budget capping applies across the board rather to each department, while the law says the department of finance permanent secretary can spend within it “as [he] may direct.” So he will be compelled to prioritise, with every permanent secretary no doubt bidding for funds.
This is indistinguishable from the behavior of ministers in an executive. If it continues beyond the summer, it will have lasted longer than our previous executive.
The flipside of not introducing direct rule is that the assembly will presumably be allowed to limp on in some shape or form, enabling all-party oversight of officials via the Public Accounts Committee.
So unelected civil servants will be our government, while everyone we elect will be the opposition.
And that is not even the punchline to this looming farce.
David Sterling, permanent secretary at the department of finance and our chancellor-to-be, was the permanent secretary at the department of enterprise when it set up the Renewable Heat Incentive.