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Judge Coglin RHI inquiry to take at least six months - no interim reports

By Jonny Bell

The judge heading the RHI Inquiry has said its work will take at least six months and has ruled out any early report on its findings saying it would be "inappropriate and unfair".

The inquiry - as revealed by the Belfast Telegraph earlier in the week - launched its official website on Thursday. It was established by Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir in the wake of allegations surrounding the flawed sustainable energy scheme.

It is chaired by retired appeal court judge Sir Patrick Coghlin and will hold hearings in the senate chamber at Stormont.

In the wake of revelations surrounding the scheme Sinn Fein called on Arlene Foster to stand aside for four weeks to allow the inquiry to prepare an interim report into the "cash-for-ash" scandal.

However, Sir Patrick has ruled this out and said it would be unlikely any report would be available for at least six months.

"The RHI Inquiry team is determined that it will get to the truth of the matters it is investigating, and will do so as quickly as it possibly can," he said.

Sir Patrick said an interim report would likely cause duplication, delay and additional expense.

"Any preliminary conclusions that could be reached would necessarily be based on incomplete information and might well have to be changed.

"It would also have the potential to be unfair to those who may be involved before the Inquiry," he said.

The inquiry will look at the development and roll-out of the botched green energy scheme set up by the Stormont Executive almost four-and-a-half years ago.

Its team is to be based at Waterfront Plaza in the city and will begin the process of gathering evidence before public hearings begin. A preliminary session will be held in April to outline its work.

"This is an independent public inquiry," Sir Patrick said

"Although a minister of the Northern Ireland Executive set it up, the inquiry is not under the control of that Minister. When I agreed to take on this complex task I was promised complete independence, and I will insist upon it."

Joining his team will be Dame Una O’Brien, who previously worked in the Home Civil Service and Dr Keith MacLean OBE, who has extensive experience in the energy industry, as an assessor.

The inquiry has also recruited a legal team, headed by David Scoffield QC, as senior counsel to the inquiry. Joseph Aiken BL and Donal Lunny BL, the junior counsel to the inquiry, have joined him. Patrick Butler BL has been appointed solicitor to the inquiry, along with Andrew Browne as secretary of the Inquiry.

"These are key appointments, many with experience of public inquiries, secured very quickly in the circumstances," Sir Patrick added.

He said it would be impossible to report within six months but said the inquiry would work as "expeditiously" as possible and complete its report within a reasonable time frame, as set out in the terms of reference.

The Renewable Heating Incentive has been described as the “biggest financial scandal in the history of devolved government”.

Unlike a similar scheme in England, there was no cap on the payments meaning many businesses profited from the scheme.

Flaws in the scheme were identified in June 2015, however, caps were not introduced until the following November, during which period there was a spike in applications.

Eventually the scheme was completely closed to new application in February 2016, however, £86,000 a day is paid out to those on the scheme.

Government officials as well as serving and former Executive ministers have faced mounting questions to explain how the scheme was allowed to be implemented in the manner it was.

The DUP had been at the centre of the storm as it was its members who oversaw the scheme. Arlene Foster was at the time the Minister for Enterprise Trade and Investment which introduced the scheme.

The former first minister has pledged to cut the RHI overspend to zero.

Legal battles are progressing through the courts to prevent the publication of business names which claimed from the scheme and to ensure their payments are not affected for the next 20 years.

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