NI civil servants more reactive than proactive at start of pandemic – Sue Gray

Sue Gray, the ex-civil servant turned chief of staff for Sir Keir Starmer, has told the Covid-19 inquiry that Stormont officials were more reactive than proactive at the outset of the pandemic.

Ms Gray was the top civil servant in Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance through the first year of the pandemic and beyond, before she was transferred to the Cabinet Office in London in May 2021.

She was asked to appear before the inquiry sitting in Belfast as the only senior-ranking civil servant who had experience of working for both the devolved administration at Stormont and the UK Government during the coronavirus emergency.

Powersharing returned to Northern Ireland just weeks before the pandemic broke out, following a three-year political impasse in the region.

Ms Gray told the inquiry the absence of devolved government for this extended period had contributed to the reactive nature of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

“I think it was a really pressured time, the Executive had just reformed, ministers were walking in the door as this was becoming clear,” she said of the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Relationships were still being formed between ministers and the civil service, and the Assembly was now back, lots of additional work coming in so, yeah, it was a reactive nature.”

Former civil servant Sue Gray
Former civil servant Sue Gray was asked to undertake a leak investigation during her time at the Department of Finance (Liam McBurney/PA)

But Ms Gray said that as time went on, there was more proactivity, facilitating “strong relationships” between then-finance minister Conor Murphy and Treasury ministers, “enabling us to look to be more proactive and to think ahead in a way that perhaps we hadn’t done previously”.

During her time in the Department of Finance, Ms Gray was asked to undertake a leak investigation amid official concerns at the volume of information from confidential Executive meetings that was being reported in the media.

On Thursday, on the last day of the inquiry’s sittings in Belfast, she highlighted the differences between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Cabinet when it came to leaking from meetings.

“I’m not going to say that everything is perfect there (at Cabinet in London) but, you know, people do respect the process and (at) Cabinet – often issues get resolved in Cabinet committees, not always at Cabinet – but you don’t read about (them), you occasionally read about differences of views, but there tends to be a certain discipline,” she said.

Ms Gray noted that, unlike in Government, there was no defined rules around collective responsibility at Stormont.

She said that at Cabinet, ministers took collective responsibility for decisions even if they disagreed with them. She reflected on her time working in the Cabinet Office during the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition and said that when ministers from the different parties disagreed on an issue, there was a set process on how to deal with that which allowed prime minister David Cameron and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to express their different views in Parliament.

“I think they demonstrated great leadership in how they handled those issues, it didn’t break down in trust because actually it was a very honest and open and frank process,” she said.

Ms Gray acknowledged the mandatory coalition system in Northern Ireland was different, pointing out that when she was last working at Stormont there were five parties in the administration, but said she believed a similar process could be made to work in the region.

She went on to suggest that using an independent adviser to investigate leaks from ministerial meetings could prove “fruitful”.

The UK Covid-19 Inquiry has heard that Ms Gray’s leak investigation failed to identify the source or sources of the leaks.

Inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett
Inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett made it clear that her focus on the practice of leaking during the pandemic was not related to ‘legitimate whistle-blowers’ (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

The ex-senior civil servant compared the approach within central government where, she said, the independent adviser on ministers’ interests would often be asked to take on such investigations.

She said she was not aware of a similar mechanism at Stormont.

“When I was here, I was asked to conduct a leak investigation,” she said.

“I think it related to some messages from somebody’s phone which, I think, a journalist, I can’t remember the exact detail, had recovered or had seen those messages.

“You know, what you can do is you can obviously, if it’s an official phone, you can check the official phone records to see if calls were made, or around that time you can also check any messages that they’ve also sent. But obviously on a personal phone you don’t have that opportunity. And I think on the investigation we did, we used all of our internal resources to try to identify what had happened. But I think that sometimes an independent investigation, actually just the nature of an independent investigation, can be fruitful.”

Brenda Doherty of Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice outside the inquiry
Members of the Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group gathered outside the inquiry on Thursday (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms Gray said people who wanted to leak would invariably find a way to do it.

But she said certain processes could be used, such as banning phones from confidential ministerial meetings, to limit the opportunities to leak. She said establishing a culture where leaking was not tolerated was also important. She said that culture should be set by the parties’ leadership, including their ministers.

The inquiry has heard how discussions at several high-pressured Executive meetings during the pandemic were effectively live-tweeted by journalists who were being leaked the information in real time.

Ms Gray was asked what the reaction would be if something similar had unfolded at a Cabinet meeting in London.

“I think that would be a terrible thing and it would be seen for that,” she said.

Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett made clear her focus on the practice of leaking during the pandemic was not related to “legitimate whistle-blowers”, rather leaks for “political advantage”.