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Civil servants running Stormont departments without ministers ‘unacceptable’

Dr Denis McMahon, permanent secretary of the Executive Office, made the comments to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Leaving civil servants to run Northern Ireland’s departments without ministers is “frankly unacceptable”, a senior official has said.

The region has been without ministers in the devolved government at Stormont for around four of the last six years due to political breakdowns.

The executive effectively collapsed in 2017 after the resignation of then deputy first minister Martin McGuinness before being resurrected on the eve of the coronavirus pandemic in January 2020.

It functioned through most of the pandemic before the resignation of Paul Givan as first minister in February 2022 saw it fall again.

Brexit
Former first minister Paul Givan (Peter Morrison/PA)

Giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, Dr Denis McMahon, permanent secretary at the Executive Office, said civil servants need the direction of ministers for legitimacy.

He described the current situation where civil servants are running departments as “a unique position in Northern Ireland”, adding: “Frankly (it is) an unacceptable position.

“Not to have ministers. It is so fundamental to the operation of governments.

“We need the direction and control, and we need the legitimacy that democratic accountability brings to decision-making to make those difficult decisions.”

The inquiry, announced by then prime minister Boris Johnson in 2021, is examining the UK’s handling of the pandemic and is hearing from senior politicians, health officials and experts.

Former Stormont health minister Robin Swann is to give evidence to the inquiry later.

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