Nearly twice as many ministerial directions were issued at Stormont from January 2020 to October 2022 as there were in the previous 22 years.
Sixty-nine were issued in that period, 51 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ministerial directions are formal instructions from ministers directing their permanent secretary to proceed, despite objections, with a spending plan.
An Audit Office report found £1.4bn was released in response to the pandemic.
Since 1998, 105 ministerial directions have been issued in Northern Ireland.
Ministerial directions can be issued when senior civil servants raise questions about departmental decisions in any of the following areas:
The report said seeking a ministerial directions should be a rare event as it suggested a conflict of opinion between a permanent secretary and their departmental minister.
- £320m approved without finance minister’s consent
- Who is running Northern Ireland?
However it added that they “can also be seen as a mechanism to deliver good public policy, at short notice and in extraordinary times, as was evident during the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021”.
Without such arrangements, permanent secretaries, in their opinion, would not have been able to release critical funds into the local economy at a time of great need, the report added.
The report also compared the use of the directions on other devolved governments in the UK, finding they have been used more frequently in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s Comptroller and Auditor General Dorinnia Carville said the ministerial direction process in Northern Ireland was a critical control mechanism for ministers and their permanent secretaries in the management and accountability of public funds.
“It is important to emphasise that the use of ministerial directions does not preclude the responsibility of public servants to exercise good governance, decision making and financial management in their delivery,” she added.
- Coronavirus pandemic