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Why Arlene is right to call for an independent inquiry into the RHI scheme to establish facts

The frenzy surrounding this complex story has resulted in little in the way of clarity, writes Nelson McCausland

The non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) has certainly been in the news over the past few weeks. It has been the subject of many hours of radio and television broadcasting and many newspaper pages have been devoted to the controversy.

It is a complex story of tariffs and technology, but it is clear that the scheme was flawed and it seems that it was being abused by some of the participants.  

As Arlene Foster stated in the Assembly: “There were shocking errors and failures in the RHI scheme and a catalogue of mistakes, all of which coincided to create the perfect storm.  It is critical that lessons are learned and that the costs of the scheme are brought under control. As First Minister, I am determined that that will be done.” 

The scheme was introduced by the former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) in November 2012 when Mrs Foster was Enterprise Minister, and then continued under Jonathan Bell, who was Enterprise Minister from May 2015 to May 2016.  Over a period of time, it became clear that there were problems with the scheme, and it was closed to new applications in February 2016. 

After the Assembly election RHI passed over to the new Department for the Economy. Since then Economy Minister Simon Hamilton has “commissioned an independent review of allegations of abuse in the RHI scheme” and has been working with civil servants and others to see how the problems can be resolved.  

The Public Accounts Committee is also investigating the scheme, and Mrs Foster has already said that she will give evidence to the PAC.

The controversy really kicked off on December 6 with a BBC Spotlight programme, and then deepened on December 16 when Mr Bell was interviewed by Stephen Nolan. That set the context for an Assembly debate on Monday, December 19. 

During much of his month there has been a torrent of coverage, comment, criticism, condemnation and counter-allegation. This frenzy has resulted in a lot of confusion and little clarity. That is why we need an independent investigation that can cut through the confusion and establish the facts by asking what, who, when, why and how.

There has been a lot of sneering and smearing from some political parties, and I get a sense of some politicians almost salivating as they wait their turn to sneer and smear. Unfortunately, they have provided very little in the way of coherent and incisive scrutiny.

When Nolan interviewed Mr Bell, he said: “Let’s start when you became minister. That was May 2015. Day one. Were you aware of this?” That was a good question because when a new minister comes into a department he normally receives a ‘first day briefing’ from the permanent secretary and other senior officials.  This provides him with an overview of the department, including any actual or potential problems.

 So what was the answer? Mr Bell replied: “No. There was nothing mentioned there that was urgent.”  Now, that answer raises a lot of questions. They weren’t the questions that Nolan asked him, but they are the sort of questions which could be asked during an independent investigation as to the process followed when an incoming minister takes office. 

 Both Mrs Foster and her party have said that they support “the need for an independent investigation, free from partisan political interference, to establish the facts around the RHI scheme”.

They have also said that “the conclusions of any investigation must be made public and that any investigation must be conducted speedily to assist in the process of building public confidence”. 

When I look at and listen to the contributions from the UUP, the SDLP and others, it is clear that they are partisan, and perhaps that is only to be expected. Some of the contributors have really sounded like judge, jury and executioner rolled up into one.

That sort of partisan approach will not get to the truth, and that is why the people of Northern Ireland deserve the sort of independent investigation proposed by Mrs Foster.

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