Belfast Telegraph

Head of Civil Service urges staff 'to keep the lights on' while Stormont stalemate continues

By Staff Reporters

The head of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland, Sir Malcolm McKibbin, has written to his staff telling them that their job is to ensure "business as usual".

His colleague David Sterling - the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance - takes control over how Northern Ireland spends its budget tomorrow.

Now Sir Malcolm has reminded the thousands of other civil servants across Northern Ireland that it is their duty to "keep the lights on" while Stormont is in limbo.

"Our aim is to ensure 'business as usual' as far as possible though, as I said in my last letter, there will be some things we will not be able to do," he wrote.

"For example, we will not be able to launch any new programmes, projects or policies which would require ministerial or Executive endorsement.

"Departmental accounting officers will also have to be prudent and aim to avoid committing to new patterns of expenditure which would go beyond what they might reasonably expect to be allocated in a budget for 2017/18 once this is agreed."

Meanwhile, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said the context of Brexit made it all the more imperative that a new Executive was formed as soon as possible.

"The absence of agreement on the establishment of an Executive is, for many reasons, deeply regrettable," he said.

"However, it is particularly concerning that a vacuum in devolved government in Northern Ireland should now be occurring just as the island of Ireland faces up to the many serious challenges represented by the UK exit from the EU.

"In these circumstances, all concerned must redouble efforts to achieve the re-establishment of power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, which is so plainly in the interests of all its citizens.

"The Irish Government will continue to advocate very strongly for Northern Ireland's interests to be protected.

"However, there is no substitute for an Executive speaking with one voice on these critical issues."

Talks collapsed after Sinn Fein announced it would not be nominating a Deputy First Minister in the Assembly before the deadline.

Without both First and Deputy First Ministers, it is impossible to form an Executive. Sinn Fein has said it will not share power with Mrs Foster as First Minister until a public inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is concluded.

Republicans have also been seeking movement on issues such as legislation to protect the Irish language, a hugely symbolic measure but problematic for some unionists.

New mechanisms for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles also remain a source of vexed dispute.

During the ill-fated negotiations, it is understood the DUP sought progress on implementing the Military Covenant in Northern Ireland, a framework that defines the State's obligations to serving and former members of the Armed Forces, as part of potential new legislation that would also offer more protections for both Irish and Ulster Scots speakers.

A voting surge by Sinn Fein in the snap Assembly election earlier this month saw the party come within one seat of the DUP at Stormont.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire claimed the talks had made progress on some issues - namely around the proposed budget and Programme for Government; moves to improve governmental transparency and accountability, and steps to implement stalled legacy mechanisms.

He said there were also moves on how Northern Ireland's interests could be best represented in Brexit negotiations. However, he said "significant gaps" between the parties on "culture and identity" issues meant an overall deal had proved elusive.

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