Belfast Telegraph

NI-bound... the steely enforcer of Whitehall

By Suzanne Breen

She's been described as the most powerful woman in Britain, and she is heading our way. Sue Gray may not be a household name but she should be.

As head of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office, she is regarded as the most influential female civil servant in Whitehall.

In a surprise move, her appointment as the new permanent secretary at Stormont's Department of Finance was announced yesterday. It has caused all sorts of speculation about what London is up to. Some observers believe it's a sure sign that direct rule is imminent.

The Government doesn't believe a deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein is likely so it's sending over a Civil Service heavy-hitter to help run the place.

Having worked with four Prime Ministers, Ms Gray has a wealth of experience and is implicitly trusted by Theresa May. In her role adjudicating on whether rules have been broken by officials, ministers and special advisers, she has guided successive Governments through crises.

She recently led the investigation into former First Secretary of State Damian Green, who was accused of inappropriate behaviour towards a young female Tory activist. Gray's current job involves overseeing Cabinet reshuffles, signing off politicians' memoirs, and vetting potential honours recipients. As effectively a fixer for the head of the UK Civil Service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, she has been dubbed "deputy God".

TUV leader Jim Allister said: "On the face of it, Sue Gray's appointment to Stormont suggests that the 'glide path' James Brokenshire spoke of is taking shape and we're heading towards direct rule. That might not be the right interpretation of events, but it's certainly a very valid one."

A Whitehall high-flier arriving in Northern Ireland must be on a mission, the theory goes, but consideration must also be given to the possibility that Gray's move is for purely personal reasons.

She has local family connections and lived here in the 1980s, where she ran The Cove pub outside Newry with her husband Bill Conlon, a country and western singer from Portaferry.

After two decades in the Cabinet Office 60-year-old Gray may just want a change of scenery and pace in the latter part of her career, and she clearly enjoyed her previous time living here.

The recruitment process for the Belfast job began four months ago, which contradicts direct rule conspiracy theories. Gray has been described as "a force of conservatism within the civil service" who has intervened to tell departments to fight disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act.

Conservative journalist Andrew Gimson wrote: "A slash of scarlet lipstick and bouffant brown hair should not distract one from the truth that she is a steely enforcer of Whitehall authority. All power to the Civil Service is her modus operandi. She owes her allegiance to the permanent government and the deep state."

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