RHI: 'Eyebrows raised' over inquiry solicitor's advisory role at Department for Economy
The appointment of the solicitor to the RHI inquiry to a high-level post advising the department most centrally involved in the scandal "raised eyebrows" in Stormont, says journalist Sam McBride.
Patrick Butler, described as the "beating heart" of the inquiry, took up the position in the Department for the Economy (DfE) in the summer.
The journalist says that although the move was entirely within the rules it caused debate in Stormont.
"In summer 2019, as the inquiry was finalising its report and preparing right of reply letters to those it would criticise, Butler took up a high-level post advising the department most centrally involved in RHI - the Department for the Economy (DfE)," McBride writes.
"For half of the week he was working in the inquiry and for the remainder he was in Stormont, acting as a senior legal adviser to DfE." The solicitor's new role was "on a temporary and part-time basis" and was "completely separate from RHI and energy-related matters".
However, McBride writes: "But even without being involved in anything RHI-related, the idea that a critical figure in the multi-million-pound inquiry investigating a departmental disaster would move to work for that department before the inquiry had even finished was problematic, at least in public relations terms. One civil servant said, 'In terms of how it's perceived, it doesn't look good. There's a lot of talk about it within the civil service'."
McBride says that Mr Butler's move was not announced by the RHI inquiry but was confirmed by it in response to questions after a source contacted him.
"As with several members of the inquiry's staff, Butler was a civil servant - working as a lawyer in the Departmental Solicitor's Office (DSO) - who had been seconded to the inquiry for its duration," he writes.
"The inquiry said that Butler had been a staff member of the DSO throughout, in the same manner as with the public inquiry into historical institutional abuse, and 'the inquiry chairman and the departmental solicitor were aware of this from the outset and were satisfied that robust measures were put in place to address any possible concerns about an actual, or perceived, conflict of interest. Ethical walls have been put in place to avoid any such conflict. Patrick Butler has not worked on any RHI-related work in his new role with the DSO'."
The journalist writes: "The Department of Finance, within which the DSO sits, said that Butler had been appointed 'on a temporary and part-time basis, to a legal advisory post which deals with DfE' but that the role was 'completely separate from RHI and energy-related matters'."
The Department of Finance, which deals with the appointment of departmental solicitors, last night said: "Patrick Butler is in a legal advisory post which deals with Department for the Economy on a part-time basis.
"This post is advising on a range of DfE areas which are completely separate from RHI and energy related matters. The Departmental Solicitor's Office put in place robust mechanisms to avoid any potential or perceived conflict of interest."