Former Head of Northern Ireland Civil Service says stalemate 'shouldn't be allowed to happen'

The Northern Ireland Secretary of State pledged to call an Assembly election at one minute past midnight on Friday.

However, as last Thursday gave way to Friday and the 28 October deadline for forming a functioning executive passed, Chris Heaton-Harris had changed his tune.

"I hear it when the parties say that they really do not want an election at all," he said. "But nearly all of them are parties who signed up to the rules, the law. That means I need to call an election so you'll hear more from me on that particular point next week."

And so Northern Ireland's once again enters a period of uncertainty with civil servants running the country.

David Stirling knows only too well the challenges civil servants.

He was head of the service for more than three years, retiring in August 2020. Ministers were in post for just seven months during that time.

"Morale is low, but the real disappointment that civil servants are facing, is they can see the harm that is being done to public services, they can see the needs that people have," he told UTV.

"For example, people on health waiting lists. And yet a frustration that everything that needs to be done, it's not possible to be done at the moment."

Health waiting lists are just the tip of the iceberg and feature on a very long list of health service ailments.

"We would say the health service here is facing a humanitarian crisis," says Patricia McKeown of the Unison union - one of several unions balloting their members on strike action over poor pay and staffing conditions within the healthcare setting.

"The people (in Northern Ireland) are facing a humanitarian crisis, and we don't say that lightly," she added.

"If we were in some other place, people would be sending us aid. That's the state in which our health services are in at the minute.

"People are in pain. People are dying, waiting. Our health service has seven to 8,000 workers missing. And that's because they haven't been properly respected or properly rewarded. People have walked out in frustration. The stress levels are chronic."

A healthy population is needed for an economy to thrive. Just as a strong economy brings with it health benefits.

Chief economist at the Ulster Bank, Richard Ramsay said just as "the UK economy hasn't been put in a favourable light over the last six weeks or so as far as the international investors and the financial markets are concerned, similarly, the situation here is not helpful."

He says economists are often accused of "talking down the economy, when talking and describing the challenges here".

"Our politicians are kind of talking down Northern Ireland whenever we're seeing that an executive isn't functioning," he said.

"What we're in the midst of is a human recession. It is going to be difficult for the Executive if it was up and running to mitigate against a lot of the challenges we face. But simply by not being involved, it only makes matters worse."

The Secretary of State remains adamant that he will still call an election and so, once again, it's the civil servants keeping the lights on.

"They're passionate about this," says David Sterling.

"They want to deliver the best possible service to the citizens they serve. They don't want to be running departments. They know that is not their job. This really shouldn't be allowed to happen."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.