Following the retirement of David Sterling, Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, the process has begun for appointing his successor with the most likely outcome being the elevation from the current crop of Permanent Secretaries.
In December 2019, David Sterling announced his intention to retire, giving notice that August 2020 would be his departure date and offering plenty of time for his successor to be identified. However, come the 1 September that post sat vacant.
Covid-19 and the attention the pandemic required is likely to be pointed to as reasons why at a time when Northern Ireland faces a health, economic and financial crisis, no one yet occupies the seat of Northern Ireland’s top official.
The job role entails not only leadership of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and its over 20,000 staff but also serving as Permanent Secretary of the Executive Office and Secretary to the Northern Ireland Executive.
Historically, the position has been filled internally but a drastic reform programme necessitated not least by the findings of public inquiry into the failings surrounding the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, have undoubtedly enhanced the chances of any external candidate.
The first round of interviews for candidates were held in early September and rumoured to be amongst those vying for the posts are five current Permanent Secretaries and at least one external candidate.
Sue Gray, a relatively new addition to the Northern Ireland Civil Service having moved from Whitehall, is the current favourite for the post. However, importantly, a policy shift actioned only a few years ago means that the First and deputy First Minister must approve the appointment, meaning that any successful candidate is likely to be who they both can agree on.
Those speculated to be in the running for the post are:
Gray’s appointment as Permanent Secretary of the Department of Finance in 2018 raised eyebrows. Not only was the former Director-General of the Propriety and Ethics Team and Head of Private Offices Group in the Cabinet Office, once described by David Cameron’s policy chief as the lady who runs Britain, coming to Northern Ireland at a time when there was no functioning Government but also at a time when Northern Ireland’s handling of budgets was under the microscope. Many tipped Gray for the role as Head of the Civil Service even before she embarked on the role as Permanent Secretary, a topic which she often successfully side-stepped. Her influence has already been felt. Introducing reform and new processes both within the Department of Finance and across other departments, where reaction to her reach has been mixed.
A more than steady hand, Peter May has been long-tipped as a future NICS Head. His breadth of experience includes his current posting as Permanent Secretary of the Department of Justice, having previously served in the same post for the Department of Infrastructure and in the former Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. May is an Oxford University graduate and raised his profile in the absence of an Executive when in 2017 he gave the go-ahead for a waste incinerator facility, a decision which was later over-turned by the High Court. May defended the decision and denied that it was aimed as a warning shot to Stormont’s parties to return to power-sharing. However, many gave him credit for being willing to progress in the Executive’s absence.
Having served as the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health since 2014, Pengelly has significant experience of the role of officials in the political arena. The chartered accountant was previously Permanent Secretary of the former Department for Regional Development. Pengelly is well-regarded amongst officials, however a combination of factors, not least Stormont’s collapse, has seen him oversee a deepening health crisis in Northern Ireland, with little action taken in the way of reform. Pengelly might also suffer from perceptions of his political connections. His wife, Emma Little-Pengelly, a former MLA and MP, is currently a special advisor to the First Minister.
Currently Permanent Secretary to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, McMahon was previously Deputy Secretary for Work and Inclusion in the Department for Communities with responsibility for welfare reform. He has worked across health and education and was previously Principal Private Secretary to former First Minister Ian Paisley.
A somewhat surprising inclusion, Dublin-born Widdis is the Head of the Government Legal Service for Northern Ireland, and Departmental Solicitor for the Northern Ireland Executive. In 2017 he was temporarily appointed as Permanent Secretary to the Department of Finance but returned to his post following the appointment of Sue Gray.