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Civil Service head David Sterling acknowledged notes should be taken of 'all' meetings in 2015



David Sterling at the RHI Inquiry

David Sterling at the RHI Inquiry

David Sterling at the RHI Inquiry

The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service said he would ensure notes were taken of all meetings with ministers in 2015 - three years before he said it was a "habit" of Stormont mandarins not to take minutes in order to save embarrassment of their political taskmasters.

During a finance committee hearing into the sale of the Republic's National Asset Management Agency (Nama) portfolio in October 2015, Mr Sterling who was the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance and Personal, was asked as to why his department did not have a record of a meeting while Nama did.

"Obviously, it is up to Nama to take whatever notes it sees fit," he told MLAs, "this whole process has identified that we probably need to be more consistent in our approach to taking notes of meetings. I actually agreed with the minister recently that we will ensure that notes are taken of all meetings, simply recording who attended, what was discussed and what was agreed."

On Tuesday during the RHI inquiry, Mr Sterling - now head of the civil service - described it as a "feature" of government in Northern Ireland that minutes would not properly be made in case they were later subject to Freedom of Information requests which would put the information in the public domain.

"It is a feature of devolved administration here were there have been two main parties that have been sensitive to criticism," he told the inquiry.

"And in that context as senior civil service we got into habit of not recording all meetings on the basis it is safer sometimes not to have record which may be released under freedom of information that shows that things that might have been unpopular were being considered."

The Executive Office has been asked for a response.

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Meanwhile, Speaking on the BBC Stephen Nolan show former finance minister Mairtin O Muilleoir rejected Mr Sterling's implication Sinn Fein was involved in any cover up of internal political business saying it was "clap trap".

"When I was there we conducted our business in a transparent manner," he said.

"We discharged our responsibilities in a proper manner, in an open manner and that is our commitment."

Asked if anyone from within Sinn Fein instructed minutes not be made he said "most definitely not, at no point did we ever tell a civil servant not to minute a meeting."

He added: "David has appeared in front of two committees now - in 2015 in the finance committee he said at that meeting one of the mistakes civil servants made around Nama, working with DUP ministers - solely DUP ministers - is that they didn't minute meetings.

Sinn Fein conducted our business in a transparent manner. Mairtin O Muilleoir

"This week again now he is saying civil servants did not minute meetings which involved DUP ministers.

"So the people in the dock - metaphorically - are the civil service and DUP ministers."

He added: "It does not involve Sinn Fein and I repudiate any suggestion that we instructed insisted or told civil servants not to discharge their jobs properly and I reject any suggestion we did not discharge our responsibilities to the public to act in an open and transparent manner.

The South Belfast MLA said Sinn Fein had a "professional relationship" with civil service and "deal with them fairly".

"They have their own obligations... they have their own legal obligations protocols and rules. Civil servants can not breach those protocols and rules.

"Any civil servant that says they did not follow protocols has serious questions to answer."

The DUP has been asked to comment. The party has said it would be inappropriate to comment on matters arising from the RHI Inquiry as its members are to appear in front of it later in the year.

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