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Civil Service gets new interim head amid efforts to bolster Stormont talks

A new interim head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service has been appointed to enable the retiring incumbent to focus on chairing the Stormont talks process.

David Sterling, the permanent secretary at the Department of Finance, takes on the role with immediate effect to allow Sir Malcolm McKibbin to concentrate on the faltering political negotiations.

Sir Malcolm has taken on a central role in mediating efforts to restore devolution after nationalists and republicans questioned the impartiality of Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire.

Concern voiced by Sinn Fein and the SDLP, based on comments Mr Brokenshire made about the treatment of security forces in legacy investigations, have intensified in light of the Conservatives' anticipated parliamentary deal with the DUP.

Sir Malcolm is now set to play an even more prominent role in the talks, which has a June 29 deadline to find agreement.

His plan to retire earlier this year had been postponed due to the recent political upheavals in Northern Ireland.

He will now officially retire at the end of June.

"These are unique times for the Northern Ireland Civil Service as we continue to offer support to the parties and the two governments in the talks to restore the Executive," he said.

"In the face of these unusual circumstances, making this temporary appointment allows me to concentrate fully on my role in the talks and for David to discharge the significant responsibilities of the post.

"It is critical for the NICS to have an experienced and qualified person in charge of such a large and diverse organisation at this time."

Northern Ireland has been without a powersharing Executive since March and without a First and Deputy First Minister since January.

The institutions collapsed amid a bitter row between the DUP and Sinn Fein about a botched green energy scheme.

One issue that had prevented Sir Malcolm leaving the stage was the fact two of the men vying to succeed him, Mr Sterling and Economy Department permanent secretary Andrew McCormick, were both under scrutiny for their role in the ill-fated renewable heat incentive (RHI).

The actions of Mr Sterling, a former permanent secretary at economy, and Mr McCormick will be examined by the forthcoming public inquiry into the RHI, a scheme which left Stormont facing a £490 million overspend.

The task of appointing a permanent head of the civil service will be left to politicians once the outcome of negotiations to restore powersharing are known.

Either Stormont ministers or, if direct rule is returned, the UK Government will make the appointment.

It is understood Mr Sterling was selected to take on the interim role because he came out on top in the merit assessment involved in the recruitment competition, a process that remains live.

"There are many challenges for the Civil Service and I look forward to working closely with colleagues across all the departments to continue to deliver essential services for the people of Northern Ireland," said Mr Sterling.

"I will obviously be working very closely with Sir Malcolm over the next few weeks."

In the absence of a devolved administration, Mr Sterling has been in control of Stormont's purse strings in recent months.

He will remain in charge of the Department of Finance until July, when he will decide how best to fill that role.

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