Belfast Telegraph

Retired senior judge will chair public inquiry into botched green energy scheme

One of Northern Ireland's most senior retired judges will chair a public inquiry into a botched green energy scheme.

Lord Justice of Appeal Sir Patrick Coghlin will be unflinching in his pursuit of the truth and scrupulous in his analysis of the evidence, Stormont's finance minister said. He begins work on February 1.

A judge on Tuesday issued an interim injunction preventing the publication of hundreds of names of Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) claimants.

Finance minister Mairtin O Muilleoir said: "By getting to the truth of the RHI scandal, this inquiry team, led by the distinguished Sir Patrick Coghlin, will I believe address those wider issues and therefore go some way to rebuilding the shattered public confidence in the institutions."

Sir Patrick's legal career stretches back to the 1970s. He retired in 2015.

The RHI is predicted to cost taxpayers up to £490 million over the next 20 years.

It precipitated the collapse of Stormont powersharing.

Sir Patrick will be assisted by two panel members and independent assessors as needed.

There is no intention to publish an interim report.

The probe will investigate:

:: The development and roll-out of the scheme by the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, under minister Arlene Foster.

:: The signing off of the scheme by the then Department of Finance and Personnel.

:: Cost controls and tariffs.

:: Delays in implementing cost control measures before November 2015 which allowed a spike in the number of applicants that autumn.

:: The closure of the scheme in February last year.

Mr O Muilleoir added: "Rest assured, every stone will be turned and there will be no dark corners where the light won't be shone."

The scheme was designed to encourage businesses to use green energy instead of fossil fuels but ended up paying out around £1.60 for every £1 spent on wood to fuel biomass boilers.

There have been allegations of empty sheds being heated in a "cash for ash" scandal.

The DUP has welcomed the public inquiry and the assembly recently voted in favour of one.

A DUP special adviser who formerly worked with Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster has quit amid allegations of exerting influence around the RHI scheme, and another adviser has stepped aside from work on measures to save taxpayers' money.

Late on Friday senior Democratic Unionist Jim Wells revealed that four family members run boilers under the controversial scheme.

A series of other politicians have publicised family links and one former assembly member's wife uses a wood pellet boiler to power a horse solarium. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by any recipients.

Mr O Muilleoir added: "I am aware that the RHI issue goes beyond financial matters to questions of governance and probity.

"By getting to the truth of the RHI scandal, this inquiry team led by the distinguished Sir Patrick Coghlin will, I believe, address those wider issues and therefore go some way to rebuilding the shattered public confidence in the institutions."

An interim injunction granted by a judge in Belfast stops the Department for the Economy from revealing the names of Renewable Heat Association (RHANI) of Northern Ireland members on Wednesday.

The RHANI represents owners of boilers in the non-domestic RHI scheme.

Mr O Muilleoir said he hoped the hearings would be televised to boost public confidence and said it would be appropriate for it to be received in six months.

An expert in renewable energy and an expert in government accounts are expected to be appointed to help Sir Patrick.

The report must be delivered to the finance minister.

Sir Patrick was educated at Queen's University Belfast and Cambridge University. He became Lord Justice of Appeal in 2008.

The minister said there were no items of information he should not be able to access.

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