Belfast Telegraph

Ophelia: Decisions on response to weather should be made by politicians: MLA

By Suzanne Breen

Unelected civil servants making key decisions as Storm Ophelia batters Northern Ireland is a "wake-up call" to the DUP and Sinn Fein to reach a deal to restore power-sharing, an Ulster Unionist MLA has said.

Upper Bann representative Doug Beattie said the public would feel let down by their politicians as it was "left to civil servants to deal with the crisis".

Mr Beattie said blame for the belated response on some matters such as closing schools ultimately lay with Northern Ireland's political leaders who had "abdicated their responsibility to govern".

He said senior civil servants had done "a good job in very challenging circumstances" but an Executive comprised of MLAs would have been far better equipped to deal with the storm.

"It should have been a local education minister making decisions about schools. It should have been a local health minister making decisions about hospital appointments.

"It should have been a local infrastructure minister dealing with the situation on our roads.

"It should have been a local justice minister liaising with the police," he said.

"Instead, it has fallen to civil servants who aren't accountable to the electorate to take these key decisions. They're having to run Northern Ireland because certain politicians won't."

The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, yesterday chaired a meeting of the civil contingencies group at Stormont to assess how best to deliver public services in the midst of Ophelia.

He defended the authorities handling of the storm after criticism that some key decisions, especially regarding the closure of schools, were made very late.

Mr Beattie said: "The criticism is understandable but civil servants aren't used to making these calls. They find it awkward as they normally look to devolved or direct rule ministers to take these decisions.

"Our politicians have been bystanders to the crisis."

TUV leader Jim Allister said he didn't believe having an Executive in place would have significantly changed the response.

"No politician or civil servant can counter nature," he said.

"Announcing on Sunday night that schools are closing on Monday seems tardy.

"Declaring on Monday afternoon that all schools are shutting on Tuesday is perhaps an over-reaction to compensate for the previous late decision.

"That aside, I don't see how having a First and Deputy First Minister in place would have changed things. The only difference would have been presentational, not substantial. Emergency services would have operated in exactly the same way."

Belfast DUP councillor Graham Craig said he believed there had been an "overreaction" to the storm in some cases.

"I can't comprehend why the whole of the Civil Service shut down at lunch-time on Monday either. Belfast City Council closed all leisure and community centres yet Belfast didn't bear the brunt of the storm," he said.

"The entire city centre basically shut down at midday yesterday. I was out for a walk on Comber Greenway and it wasn't that bad at all. There has been an overreaction fostered by media hype."

Secretary of State James Brokenshire said he had kept in regular contact with Mr Sterling and "representatives from multi-agency emergency response organisations" about the storm.

He said contingency plans were in place "with the relevant resources and networks tasked to ensure public services are protected as far as possible".

The British Government stood ready to "provide a full range of support if requested", he added.

Belfast Telegraph

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