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Public deserves real answers over RHI, not cheap political stunts

Editor's Viewpoint

We know that politics in Northern Ireland has only a veneer of normality. Yes, the atmosphere here is better than it was a few decades ago when people were being slaughtered on the street, but there were many people viewing the antics at Stormont yesterday who were left wondering if the standard of politics and certainly the calibre of politicians had actually slipped backwards.

The scenes were almost surreal. Confronting the politicians was without doubt the greatest financial scandal since the ill-fated DeLorean project all those years ago. At stake was a potential payout over the next 20 years of something approaching £500m.

What the public wanted to know was who was to blame for this squandering of taxpayers' money, how the flaws in the Renewable Heating Incentive scheme were not realised until too late even though they were repeatedly flagged up and what would be done now.

With First Minister Arlene Foster fighting for her political life - the scheme was introduced by her - the other parties decided to play politics instead of playing hardball. It was like the hokey cokey; one minute they were in the chamber, the next they were out, then back in again then out again. All it did was let Mrs Foster make her statement in her own way and try to deflect blame away from her party.

This botched scheme is a DUP calamity - party colleague Jonathan Bell took over the reins of Mrs Foster's DETI ministry and wound up entry to the scheme, but not until the damage was done - but yesterday attention focused on stunts, not responsibility.

Mrs Foster, who is nearing the end of her first year as First Minister, must have breathed a sigh of relief at what happened. The vote of no confidence against her was never going to succeed, although she does have a habit of riling opponents with intemperate language ill-becoming her status as de facto joint leader of the province.

While this is a challenging time for her, she must feel confident of her party's support - she led them to an unexpectedly high total of seats in the Assembly elections.

And she knows she can ride out Sinn Fein's demand for her to step aside until this debacle is fully explored. After all, she is needed to head up the province's Brexit negotiations, albeit in uneasy alliance with Martin McGuinness.

Her standing aside will make no difference to the situation over the heating fiasco. Neither would calling another election, as some have suggested. All that would confirm is that the DUP and Sinn Fein are the two largest parties, and they would form the next Executive as well.

What really needs to be done is that the Opposition parties, which may include Sinn Fein in this instance, should use all the powers of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to discover as much information as possible about how and why the scheme was set up in the way it was, who was responsible for drafting the rules of the scheme, how repeated red flags were ignored, who joined the scheme and what level of fraud actually exists.

Given the performance of the politicians to date, faith in the PAC is limited among the public and, as this newspaper has said in recent days, there should be a judge-led independent inquiry with the correct terms of reference to get to the truth of the matter.

Those people existing on benefits or part-time work while vital services such as health and education are being starved of cash deserve better, but yesterday shows they are unlikely to get it. This was an appalling response to a serious issue.

Belfast Telegraph

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