Belfast Telegraph

No deadline for RHI probe, says chair as he vows independence

By Rebecca Black

The inquiry into the 'cash for ash' scandal will have no time limit, Sir Patrick Coghlin said yesterday after promising his team would "fearlessly examine the evidence without interference from any quarter".

The chairman of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Inquiry gave the assurance as he presided over the first public sitting of the investigation.

Sir Patrick said the probe had already received a "very significant amount of evidence", adding that he expected hundreds of thousands of pages of detail as the inquiry proceeded.

It emerged late last year that the RHI scheme, which was established by Arlene Foster in 2012 when she was Enterprise Minister, would run approximately £490m over budget.

Flaws in the initiative's design meant recipients were able to earn more in State subsidies than it cost to run their boilers.

When the crisis came to a head over the winter, the late former Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness asked Mrs Foster to stand aside.

When she refused he resigned, collapsing Stormont's power-sharing institutions.

A new Executive has still not been formed two months after the subsequent snap Assembly election in March.

The RHI Inquiry will examine four phases: the original design and implementation of the scheme here; the initial operation of the initiative; the circumstances relating to the imposition of cost controls in the project in late 2015, and the circumstances relating to the suspension of the programme to new applicants last year.

Sir Patrick introduced members of his inquiry team yesterday morning at the Long Gallery at Stormont as he read an opening statement.

His panel includes Dame Una O'Brien, a former permanent secretary at the Department of Health in London, and renewable heating expert Dr Keith MacLean.

David Scoffield QC has been appointed to act as senior counsel to the probe.

While the probe will be fact-finding rather than adversarial, former Appeals Court judge Sir Patrick said there would be a "detailed and intensive" investigation.

"I want to assure members of the public in Northern Ireland that this inquiry will fearlessly examine the evidence relating to the RHI scheme, and that it will do so without interference from any quarter in order to establish the facts about the scheme and those connected to it," he added.

"When I agreed to act as chairman of the inquiry, I was promised complete independence, and I shall insist upon it."

Former Finance Minister Mairtin O'Muilleoir speculated in January, when he announced the inquiry, that it would last for six months, although Sir Patrick said there was no time limit.

He acknowledged the public's wish to see a speedy outcome to the work, but stressed that it must be fact-based and conducted with rigour.

"The inquiry will investigate accountability for any failings which it finds in the scheme, wherever that accountability may lie," he said.

The panel is to write to every person and group that had installations accredited under the scheme to "seek their assistance with the provision of information or documentation which may be relevant to the matters which the inquiry is charged to investigate".

The investigation will be based at the Waterfront Plaza, but the public hearings will be conducted in the Senate Chamber at Stormont. These are due to start in early autumn.

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