Senior officials to be summoned to Northern Ireland forum
New body’s first formal meeting this month will address ongoing devolution deadlock
Parliament Buildings at Stormont. MLAs have agreed to form the Regional-Local Government Forum along with representatives from all councils in the province. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images
The growing power vacuum in Northern Ireland is to be addressed by a new body set up despite the ongoing devolution deadlock at Stormont.
Senior civil servants including permanent secretaries are to be summoned to the Regional-Local Government Forum which is to hold its first formal meeting later this month.
MLAs have agreed to form the organisation along with representatives from all councils in the province, although it has no powers.
It was an initiative by the councils’ umbrella body, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) and replaces the so-called Political Panel which brought Ministers regularly into contact with councillors but which folded when the Assembly and Executive collapsed more than 18 months ago.
Decision-making in the absence of Ministers has been thrown into disarray following a High Court ruling that the permanent secretary of the Department of Infrastructure, Peter May, did not have the authority to give the green light to a controversial waste incinerator plant in Co Antrim.
Since the verdict in May, senior civil servants have tended to err on the side of caution, with former first minister Arlene Foster, whose DUP party is propping up the Conservative government in London, calling on Secretary of State Karen Bradley to push ahead with the introduction of direct rule.
The forum will provide an opportunity for MLAs including former ministers to quiz senior civil servants on the paralysis, which is affecting funding in key areas including education and health.
Former NILGA president Arnold Hatch said: “We will be trying to find out exactly what the position is in relation to civil servants taking decisions across the board.
“It seems they can do even less than they previously thought they could do. Yet the Government is doing nothing about it.
“Now that there are no local Ministers NILGA insisted that the forum should be able to call permanent secretaries and other senior civil servants who would normally be accountable to Assembly committees.
“It doesn’t have any powers but the forum should be able to make it clear to the Secretary of State that this is an issue which cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.”
The forum is also likely to add to pressure on the UK Government to consider deferring increased powers to the province’s 11 councils in the continuing gap left by the limbo around the Assembly.
The forum has the backing of both the DUP and Sinn Féin, as well as the other three main parties – the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance. The Green Party, which has two MLAs, has already backed an enhanced role for the councils, which amalgamated from the previous 26 local authorities five years ago.
Three months ago an independent report commissioned by NILGA concluded councils could have direct responsibility for services and undertake scrutiny of matters that are at present supposed to be the direct responsibility of the Executive.