Belfast Telegraph

'Stormont will collapse again if there is not a culture change,' ex-Civil Service chief warns

By Allan Preston

The former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service has said Stormont will only collapse again if there is no change in culture.

After 111 days of oral evidence, Sir Malcolm McKibbin was the final witness to appear before the public inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive.

He had only limited involvement in RHI but told the panel he witnessed political crises which threatened to bring Stormont down on an annual basis.

He repeated calls from his successor David Sterling for a culture change at Stormont.

The final day finished on a lighter note, with inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin telling Sir Malcolm: "It's just nice to hear someone with a little bit of confidence and a lot of ability addressing the panel for once."

The inquiry will continue to take written evidence, and may recall witnesses if needed.

The panel is to reconvene in December for closing remarks, but no date has been set for the final report.

Sir Malcolm told the panel how a "highly politically charged" atmosphere meant special advisers for the DUP and Sinn Fein needed to negotiate in crisis talks on a yearly basis since 2013. He said this often took months, but nothing could be ever be agreed until everything was agreed.

There was an awareness in March 2017, after Stormont collapsed, that the system wasn't working and he said it "reflects well on our politicians" that they recognised a need to change.

The role of special advisers - Spads - has been a key issue this week, with questions about how they were appointed and the power they wield.

He admitted the job description "was a bit grey" in areas and it would be important to address this.

Sinn Fein's top adviser to Martin McGuinness, Aidan McAteer, was not employed officially as a Spad after a law was introduced banning those with serious criminal convictions from the role. Despite this, he was able to direct Sinn Fein's elected ministers and, by extension, Civil Service officials.

Sir Malcolm said this ambiguous arrangement made him uncomfortable at times.

Regarding the former DUP minister Jonathan Bell, Sir Malcolm said he observed he didn't contribute as much as others in the Executive. There were also concerns about his lack of knowledge when engaging with American companies on foreign trips.

Mr Bell had closed the RHI scheme in February 2016, but Sir Malcolm was only informed about the crisis a month before.

"It would be something that I would have wished to brief the First and Deputy First Minister on," he said.

Ex-DUP Spad Richard Bullick told his colleagues at the time Sir Malcolm was very concerned about the overspend and that Arlene Foster was "better not implicated".

Sir Malcolm insisted he would have said "involved", as the word implicated "has all sorts of connotations".

He told the panel the reason for this was that it required a technical solution from officials.

A plan to close RHI was eventually agreed in January 2017. Sir Malcolm said this went "closer to the wire than anybody felt comfortable with".

He said the political fallout made this much more difficult and possibly far more costly.

This week ex-DUP minister Simon Hamilton admitted he leaked emails to the Press and senior civil servant Dr Andrew McCormick to take pressure off his party. Sir Malcolm said he was shocked Mr Hamilton had sent them anonymously to Dr McCormick while sitting just metres away in another office.

Belfast Telegraph

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