Change afoot at permanent secretary level

17 August 2018 - by Matthew Jackson

While decision-making may be absent in Northern Ireland's government, significant change is not.

Last Friday brought the announcement by the Executive Office that Tracey Meharg is, from December, taking up the role of new permanent secretary in the Department for Communities. In doing so, she will succeed Leo O’Reilly.

Meharg currently leads Invest Northern Ireland’s Innovation and Capability Development Group, and will bring significant experience in marketing, and business and economic development to her new role.

The appointment follows a series of changes at permanent secretary level in recent months, providing the impetus for departmental change as Northern Ireland approaches 600 days of decision-making limbo.

Sue Gray, described by some as the ‘most powerful woman in Britain’, assumed the position of permanent secretary in the Department of Finance in May. She previously served 20 years in the Cabinet Office as the director-general of the Propriety and Ethics Team and the head of the Private Offices Group.

It is expected that Peter May, currently head of the Department for Infrastructure, will move to the Department of Justice next month, replacing incumbent Nick Perry, who has announced his retirement. The Executive Office's Katrina Godfrey is set to replace May when he departs his current post.

With the end of the holiday season and publication of A-level results, there is a distinct back-to-school feeling in the air. New and existing pressures ensure that the in-trays of senior civil servants remain full.

The change in gear can also be seen in the briefing document published this week by the Department of Finance, in which the department sets out the broad strategic issues that will inform an incoming Executive’s decisions on a budget for 2018-19 and 2019-20. It also outlines several scenarios that might be pursued to ease budgetary pressures.

In a week that saw Attorney General John Larkin make a request to the Supreme Court for ‘authoritative guidance’ on the powers that can be exercised by civil servants in the continued absence of an Assembly, following the controversy over the Hightown incinerator proposal, we will wait and see what impact these new appointments have on the decision-making process.