Belfast Telegraph

RHI probe will find who was responsible for failings, Sir Patrick vows

A top retired judge has pledged to investigate who was responsible for botching a green energy scheme in Northern Ireland.

Sir Patrick Coghlin said he would be fearless in his pursuit of the truth surrounding the Renewable Heat Incentive, which threatens to leave the taxpayer almost half a billion pounds out of pocket.

His independent public inquiry is due to begin hearing from witnesses in the autumn from its base at the heart of government at Stormont and has already begun compelling people to produce information.

Sir Patrick declared: "The inquiry will investigate accountability for any failings which it finds in the scheme - wherever that accountability may lie."

The departments of the economy, finance and regulator Ofgem will be in the spotlight as core participants in the inquiry who had some role during a saga which ultimately brought down Northern Ireland's powersharing government.

The investigation will consider the alleged lack of response by the authorities to those voicing concerns as the budget for the grant encouraging businesses to switch to sustainable energy was quickly blown.

It will spotlight the role played by ministers, their special advisers and civil servants and any action or inaction as the cost spiralled out of control in late 2015.

Sinn Fein has said it will not return to devolved government with the leader of their former coalition partners, Arlene Foster of the DUP, until the inquiry concludes but its chairman said he would not sacrifice rigour for speed and warned it could not accurately be predicted when his findings would be delivered.

He added: "I doubt very much whether the public concern which gave rise to the establishment of this inquiry would be allayed by a process which was subsequently revealed to have proceeded upon an inaccurate basis of fact largely because the thoroughness of the investigation had been sacrificed in the interest of a speedy conclusion."

Sir Patrick said it would comb over the roles played by individuals or bodies responsible, including ministers, civil servants and special advisers, plus suppliers and potential applicants.

A senior civil servant has said it is likely insider information was passed on and those in the renewables industry were warned to "get in quick" before the lucrative scheme closed.

The inquiry is designed to find facts and cannot convict anyone of a crime or award compensation.

Sir Patrick said: "This inquiry will fearlessly examine the evidence relating to the RHI scheme and it will do so without interference from any quarter in order to establish the fact about the scheme and those connected to it."

His team has already written to 125 people and organisations compelling the production of relevant documents and is to contact around 2,000 beneficiaries seeking information.

Mrs Foster established the RHI in 2012 when she was enterprise minister.

Flaws in its design meant recipients were able to earn more in state subsidies than it actually cost to run their eco-boilers.

When the "cash for ash" crisis flared during the winter, the late former Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness asked Mrs Foster to stand aside.

When she refused, he resigned and collapsed Stormont's powersharing institutions.

A new coalition government has still not been formed two months on from the snap Assembly election in March.

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