Belfast Telegraph

RHI scandal: Public's faith in the institutions must be nearing rock-bottom

Editor's Viewpoint

As a piece of political theatre, the interviews with former Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell and First Minister Arlene Foster on last night's Nolan television programme was both astonishing and riveting. The DUP, a party that prides itself in the tight control of its members and of keeping disagreements in-house, was washing its dirty laundry in public. Mr Bell was making allegations that special advisers in the party had prevented him closing the controversial RHI scheme early, and that names had been removed from an email chain - though for what purpose was never explained.

Mrs Foster in her interview - as did the special advisers - denied they interfered with attempts to close the scheme.

Both accused each other of intimidatory and hostile behaviour and taking part in stand-up rows. It was a spiteful and venomous exchange that will have shocked many viewers, who will wonder how the relationship between two party colleagues who apparently got on well in the past had deteriorated to this extent.

<< Listen to Mrs Foster's full interview >>

Given the totally contradictory nature of the two interviews, the lasting impression is that we are no clearer on how the scheme, about which concerns were raised to Mr Bell by his permanent secretary in June 2015, was allowed to continue for many months, causing a potentially massive overspend.

Nor are we any clearer on how the deficiencies in the scheme were not spotted earlier. Unlike the scheme in Britain, there was no cap on tariffs. Why the model used in Britain was not followed slavishly is also still shrouded in mystery.

About the only positive thing to emerge from this sorry debacle is that a plan is to be unveiled next month aimed at ensuring that the projected overspend - some £485m over 20 years - does not actually happen.

What the programme did reveal was the dysfunctional nature of the administration at Stormont. It appears from Mr Bell's account that individual ministers can be hamstrung by the need for collective responsibility in the Executive and that special advisers to the various ministers, although unelected, have wide-ranging influence.

While the focus has been on the First Minister in recent weeks over the controversy, the interviews claimed their first victim - public faith in the institutions at Stormont. Many will have listened to how the administration works with growing despair.

That is why it is vital that the Public Accounts Committee carries out a detailed investigation into the heating scheme. It must use the full extent of its powers to examine all the documents relating to the scheme and interview all the key players, including everyone mentioned in the programme last night.

If the PAC feels its powers are not sufficient or cannot get a satisfactory grasp of what went wrong and why, then there should be the option of a public inquiry. This is a debacle on a massive scale and cannot be swept under the carpet or result in the usual feeble finding of "lessons have been learned and such mistakes cannot be made again".

While the First Minister certainly mounted a robust defence against the accusations aimed at her, it has to be noted that she only saw part of the interview before giving her own account. Had she seen the full interview her response may well have been much more withering. She is still under pressure, but may be able to ride out the storm. Mr Bell's future in the party is much more clear-cut. He has none.

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