Sinn Fein in U-turn and calls for RHI public inquiry
Party has resisted calls for full-scale public investigation into debacle
Sinn Fein has called for a public inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive.
Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir said he wanted to institute an inquiry before the Assembly dissolves.
He said the subsequent report should be published in full to the public on completion.
DUP Leader Arlene Foster welcomed the U-turn by Sinn Fein and said she looked forward to the findings.
Mr O Muilleoir said: “It is clear that, with time short until the Assembly dissolves, the only way to serve the public interest is for me as Finance Minister to move to institute a public enquiry immediately. No other type of investigation is now feasible given time pressures."
Sinn Fein had been criticised by their opponents for not backing the call for a public inquiry up until now.
As recently as this morning Sinn Fein's Declan Kearney was arguing that a public inquiry was not the way forward to investigate the debacle.
They had argued that a full-blown investigation under the 2005 Enquiries Act would be lengthly and add to the overall cost of the RHI debacle.
It comes after Sinn Fein collapsed the power-sharing institutions when they refused to nominate a deputy First Minister to replace Martin McGuinness, who resigned over the DUP's handling of the RHI.
The last sitting day of the Assembly will take place on January 25 and the Assembly will be dissolved on January 26.
“I have now instructed officials to take the necessary steps to establish a public enquiry under the Enquiries Act 2005 into the RHI scheme," the finance minister continued.
“I have received legal advice in regard to these matters. I will make a full statement to the Assembly next week.
“This enquiry will be impartial and objective. I will not interfere in its work. It will be tasked to get to the truth of this issue.
“Under the Enquiries Act, the enquiry report must go to the Finance Minister. I give a commitment that I or any Sinn Fein Minister will release the report in full to the public on receipt.
“I call on all parties to sign up to unrestricted, unedited publication.
“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 enquiry report will, I believe, address those wider issues, and, therefore, put the public first.”
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DUP Leader Arlene Foster welcomed the backing by Sinn Fein.
She said: "It's something that I have been wanting for some considerable time...so I'm pleased that finally we will get to the truth of what happened in the Renewable Heating Incentive scheme.
"As was confirmed yesterday in committee, I have absolutely nothing to hide, so I look forward to the inquiry reporting."
SDLP North Belfast MLA Nichola Mallon said: "It is welcome that after months of resisting a public inquiry, after weeks of deriding and debasing the SDLP demand for a public inquiry and within hours of the SDLP Leader renewing his call for a change in their position on a public inquiry, that Sinn Féin have now moved to launch a public inquiry.
"Over the last 30 days of dithering alone, £2.5m of public money has been lost to the RHI black hole by Executive parties resisting the highest standard of accountability on this issue. The Finance Minister must now take the advice of the Lord Chief Justice to appoint a respected judicial figure to oversee this inquiry and give the inquiry full authority to publish their report independently from his office or department. There must be no suspicion of interference."
Ulster Unionist finance spokesperson Philip Smith MLA said: "What on earth is Sinn Fein’s game here? One minute they are producing their own Terms of Reference for an independent inquiry. Then they are lambasting others for suggesting the Inquiries Act be used. Earlier today Declan Kearney was insisting they would not trigger an inquiry. Yet this afternoon they have totally turned on their heels.
"We are now left with more questions than answers. We need to know the Terms of Reference. Will the Lord Chief Justice be asked to recommend a judge to lead? Will it be a panel of one? Will Máirtín Ó Muilleoir give a cast iron guarantee not to suspend or fold under powers in section 13 of the Act? And finally, will there be an interim report as promised in Sinn Fein’s original Terms of Reference?"
Voters in Northern Ireland are set to go to the polls on March 2 after deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest over the flawed scheme.
The money 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.
A call for a public inquiry was backed by the devolved Assembly earlier this week.