Belfast Telegraph

RHI Inquiry: Foster and Bell given special status for proceedings

Arlene Foster and Jonathan Bell have been given special status for the inquiry into the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

At a preliminary hearing on Monday inquiry head Sir Patrick Coghlin said he would be pushing back the first evidence hearing until November given the large volume of material his team were having to examine. He said extra staff had been brought on to cope.

The retired judge also outlined the scope of the inquiry. He said 23 individuals have been given "enhanced participatory rights" which is afforded to people that are likely to be mentioned in the final report. 

The status means they will have access to witness statements and legal representation, if deemed necessary. They could also make a closing statement to the inquiry before it publishes its final report.

The 23 individuals include consultants who designed the scheme, civil servants, special advisers and DUP leader Arlene Foster and former DUP MLA Jonathan Bell.

Mrs Foster was Enterprise Minister when the scheme was set up. While Mr Bell oversaw its closure. All involved have denied any wrongdoing in the establishment of the scheme.

Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir, who established the inquiry as one of his final acts as finance minister, said he was disappointed with the delay in proceedings.

"But it is also understandable given the vast amount of evidence that the inquiry team has already gathered and which must be thoroughly processed and prepared prior to the oral hearings taking place," he said.

"It is important that happens because the need to get to the facts of the RHI scandal is just as prevalent now as it was when I instituted the inquiry.

“If we are to restore public confidence in the institutions of government then any negligence, incompetence, alleged corruption and abuse must be identified and those responsible held to account.”

Following Monday's hearing, the Renewable Heat Association for Northern Ireland said it has encouraged all its members - understood to be over half of those on the scheme - to "fully engage" with the inquiry, stressing the importance to its members of responding to its questions.

The RHI scheme ultimately brought down the Stormont Executive.

Established in November 2012, it was an attempt to increase consumption of heat from renewable sources. It was found to have paid more to boiler owners than the cost of the fuel. Auditors said there may have been potential fraud in order for some owners to profit from the scheme.

Originally an overspend of £490m was identified, however, Stormont officials have since admitted this was exaggerated by at least £160m.

The Department of Economy has introduced reduced tariffs in a bid to cut expenditure. It has said it must work to remove the "perverse incentive to generate more heat than required".

Sinn Fein repeatedly said Arlene Foster can not be in the Executive for as long as the RHI inquiry takes place. However, the party's Pearse Doherty said that was negotiable in the ongoing talks process. 

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