Belfast Telegraph

Political posturing starting to detract from core RHI issue

Editor's Viewpoint

In the fractured politics of Northern Ireland, still with its sectarian undertones - sometimes more obvious than others - and with a coalition Government in power whose partners share little in common beyond their numerical supremacy, the desire among politicians to do each other down is insatiable.

It is obvious that all the other parties see potential in the RHI debacle to mortally wound First Minister Arlene Foster, and by association the DUP. It is equally obvious from her robust, even hectoring, retaliation that she is in no mood to submit at all, never mind quietly.

The political infighting has now reached such a clamorous crescendo that there is a danger of the real issue becoming a secondary concern. This is not about whether Mrs Foster remains as the titular head of the Government - albeit in partnership with Martin McGuinness - but about how the scheme became a fiasco.

Our story today on the evolution of RHI points to a catalogue of missed opportunities to spot the fatal flaw in the scheme by a whole raft of players - political, in the Civil Service, energy experts and even the energy regulator.

That much evidence has already been gathered with the minimum of effort, and what is required now is a proper independent inquiry, where the facts are the paramount concern and the political posturing can be left at the door.

For, let there be no mistake, this debacle is a serious one. At stake potentially is £490m of public money - money that is desperately needed throughout Northern Ireland, especially in areas like health, education and job creation.

Also at stake is the investment of the very many people who joined the RHI scheme for the soundest of reasons and who, if the First Minister's rescue plan - as revealed in this newspaper earlier in the week - comes to fruition, may be asked to sacrifice some of the return they expected on that investment in order to prevent the massive overspend.

Understandably, they will want answers as to why the scheme was devised in such an incompetent manner. They will want to know who was responsible for altering the template of a similar scheme that operated successfully in Britain, and how the potential for costs to spiral out of control were not spotted by anyone.

And when those answers are found - if indeed they are - they, along with the public at large, will want those at fault to pay some price themselves. How often in the past, no matter how scandalous the waste of public resources, have those responsible suffered any penalty? Seldom, if ever.

The sooner an independent, transparent inquiry is held and reports, the better. That will give the proper focus to this crisis. At the same time all the political brinksmanship threatening the very existence of devolution, or at least sparking another Assembly election, should cease.

The parties know that an election will solve nothing. Indeed, it will create further problems. It would be bitterly fought between nationalism and unionism, with sectarian bile never far from the surface, but also within both traditions. And the same dominant parties would be returned to work in an even colder relationship than currently exists.

Whether people like it or not, the DUP and Sinn Fein are the natural partners in our unique system of devolution.

They have plenty of work to do on fixing the health service, attracting investment, adopting a positive Brexit policy, streamlining our education system, and all the other day-to-day issues which have an impact on all our lives.

That is what they need to be getting on with.

Belfast Telegraph

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