Belfast Telegraph

RHI: Audit report a 'quare gunk' moment, says civil servant

By Allan Preston

A senior civil servant has said it was a "quare gunk" moment for officials after they received a damning audit report.

Dr Andrew McCormick used the well-known local expression at the public inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive.

It was a learning day for panel member Dame Una O'Brien, from London, who had never heard the term.

She said: "I'm sorry, you'll have to explain it. What does it mean?"

Dr McCormick explained that "bombshell" would be a loose translation.

The "quare gunk" in question was when Northern Ireland's auditor general blasted the Civil Service for a culture of short-cuts and a failure to manage taxpayers' money.

Appearing before the inquiry last week, auditor Kieran Donnelly told the panel it was "clear to me that value for money isn't front and centre in the minds of just too many civil servants".

In a short appearance yesterday afternoon, Dr McCormick faced further questions about a two-week delay to shut down RHI in 2016.

Nearly 300 extra claimants applied, boosting the cost by an estimated £91.5m over a 20-year period.

Dr McCormick said that this had been accepted as a political judgment by the DUP and Sinn Fein at the time.

He said Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir agreed to the extension after a "public and political outcry" over the scheme.

He said he didn't see "anything untoward" about the decision.

On reflection, he said there was no exact reason why it was decided that two weeks would be the right amount of time.

The main thinking at the time, he said, was a desire by everyone involved to resolve the situation extremely quickly.

Mr O Muilleoir told the inquiry on Tuesday that the "phones lit up" with countless claimants complaining it was unfair to shut the scheme down so abruptly. "We thought the immediate closure would cause loss of jobs and a loss of business," he said.

He likened the crisis period to a runaway train.

"We needed an emergency stop, but even an emergency stop requires skill."

Earlier this month Dr McCormick detailed the dysfunctional environment leading up to the closure of RHI.

This included a culture of not taking notes at key meetings for fear the contents would be leaked to the Press.

He said the situation was made even worse by escalating tensions between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Dr McCormick is due back in front of the panel this morning in what is scheduled to be the final day of oral evidence.

His session is to be followed by an appearance from the former head of the Civil Service Sir Malcolm McKibbin.

Belfast Telegraph

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