The move to appoint a senior official from Whitehall as the new Permanent Secretary in the Department of Finance suggests that the British Government have initiated a contingency plan in the eventuality that the latest round of talks to restore an Executive are unsuccessful.
Although suggestions that direct rule is imminent have been rejected by the British Government and the Northern Ireland Office, the appointment of Sue Gray to head up the Department of Finance in a time of increasing need for a budget to be set out for the coming year does not appear entirely coincidental.
Recently, Head of the Civil Service David Sterling told Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that budget certainty would need to be in place by early February in order for services to be delivered effectively and the move to insert Gray, a respected and senior Government guide, suggests that the Government are aware a budget may have to be implemented, in the likely occurrence that local politicians cannot strike a deal.
Gray’s move is the result of a small reshuffle at permanent secretary level, including the move of Andrew McCormick from the Department for Economy to a newly created Brexit-focussed role, to be replaced by Noel Lavery. The vacant role left by Lavery in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) portfolio is to be filled by Denis McMahon, Deputy Secretary, Work and Inclusion Group in the Department for Communities.
Oliver Letwin, David Cameron’s policy chief, once said: “Nothing moves in Whitehall unless Sue says so.” Gray was regarded as one of the most powerful non-public figures in her tenure as the Director General, propriety and Ethics Team and Head of Private Offices Group. In her role she oversaw the provision of advice to all government departments on standards and ethics issues, corporate governance in public bodies, and made and manages public appointments to ensure the highest standards of propriety, integrity and governance within government.
As Head of the Private Offices Group she oversaw management of the private offices of ministers and permanent secretaries within the Cabinet Office. Most recently she investigated Damian Green, Theresa May’s deputy who eventually resigned, over misleading statements around pornography found on his parliamentary computer.
Her Northern Ireland link appears to be that in the 1980s she took a career break to run The Cove public house near Newry with her husband.
Permanent Secretary for the re-named Department for the Economy since early 2014. In what has been viewed as a sideways move, he will now take up the position of Director General, International Relations, which the Executive Office says reflects the increasing challenges of Brexit. McCormick will also have responsibility for Brussels, Washington, Beijing and the North-South Ministerial Council in Armagh. McCormick’s public profile has been elevated through his position as one of the most senior officials involved in the RHI controversy.
A chartered accountant by profession, Lavery was appointed Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) Permanent Secretary in 2013 and headed up the newly named DAERA from 2016. Prior to his position as Permanent Secretary he has served as Deputy Secretary over the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), before joing the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMdFM) with responsibility for Finance, Corporate Services, the regeneration of former military sites, international relations including the NI Executive’s Washington Office and European Policy including the Brussels office.
Currently Deputy Secretary of the work and inclusion group in the Department for Communities, McMahon has previously served as Director of Environment for the Department of the Environment and Director of Waste Management. In his earlier career, he was a former Principal Private Secretary to Ian Paisley snr and has acted as Permanent Secretary in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.
The Executive Office has stated that the permanent secretary competition will remain live until the end of March. The Executive Office’s Katrina Godfrey and Invest NI’s Tracy Meharg are the next two successful candidates on the list for this competition.