Belfast Telegraph

David Sterling: From RHI mess to Stormont chaos, the most trying of times for the man at the helm

Alf McCreary charts David Sterling's years as head of NICS during a time of political chaos

David Sterling
David Sterling
David Sterling givies evidence during the RHI Inquiry

David Sterling's three years at the helm of the civil service saw him contend with a vast range of serious issues.

From the acrimonious collapse of the Stormont institutions and its acrimonious fallout to Brexit, he faced more crises in his short tenure than others do in their entire careers.

So it was no wonder that Mr Sterling, in his statement announcing his retirement next August, reflected on the last few years as being the "most challenging and difficult" in the history of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Few would disagree with him.

The Stormont shutdown aside, his time in the top post brought the RHI scandal - the final outcome of which is eagerly awaited - and months and months of deep uncertainty about the future of Northern Ireland post-Brexit.

The absence of a working Stormont administration and the lack of ministers to make decisions on key issues has led to huge problems across society - from health and education to heritage and roads.

Last year this newspaper reported how more than 160 separate decisions could not be taken in the absence of a functioning Executive.

Take health as one example. The local health service, which some medical experts now believe is heading for virtual breakdown, faces unprecedented delays and cancellations in outpatient appointments and inpatient surgery and other key areas.

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Mr Sterling reflected: "We have found ourselves in the unique situation of working without ministerial direction to keep public services running, and to deliver the best possible outcomes for our people at a time of unprecedented challenge.

"The enormity of the task has put significant pressure on the NICS, and I am proud of the way we have responded."

Mr Sterling's time also covered the RHI crisis, the trigger for the collapse of Stormont and all the problems that followed.

During the evidence given to the RHI Inquiry, concern was expressed at the way in which personal and party advisers to leading figures in government seemed to hold considerable influence over decision-making, and about the impact of these developments on the traditional and impartial advisory role of senior civil servants.

There is no doubt that this vexed issue will be aired again when the RHI report is issued in 2020, and most likely this will happen when Mr Sterling is still in office.

Traditionally senior civil servants, including the head of the NICS, try to steer clear of controversial headlines, but Mr Sterling broke with that tradition on a number of occasions, including a warning about the "grave consequences" of a no-deal Brexit.

He also hinted in a recent letter to the Stormont political parties that current developments may be contributing to a perceived hardening of the Irish border.

Mr Sterling has had a leading career, spanning more than four decades in the civil service. He said that had always intended to retire in 2020. He told his colleagues of his decision and said that he was confirming his retirement date now so that a search for his successor can be launched "when an Executive" is restored.

At the moment there is no indication that this will occur any time soon, despite possible further attempts to restart talks at Stormont immediately after the election.

Paying tribute to his colleagues, Mr Sterling said: "Throughout my career, including my time as head of the Civil Service, I have been impressed and humbled by the work of civil servants across departments, and I want to thank them for the great work they do every day to help make people's lives better.

"It has been an honour and a privilege to lead this organisation, and I look forward to continuing to do so for the next number of months."

There is every indication, however, that given the fall-out from Brexit and the publication of the RHI report early next year, Mr Sterling and the NICS will continue to face stiff challenges.

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