Belfast Telegraph

RHI public inquiry to open within days as witness appeal is launched online

By Noel McAdam

The public inquiry into Stormont's botched multi-million pound Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scheme will be under way within days, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

A website is to be established by the end of this week that will appeal for witnesses to come forward, and will include information on the inquiry's procedures and protocol.

The website will also include the first comments on the issue by retired Appeal Court judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, who has been appointed to chair the investigation.

Queen's University graduate Sir Patrick has yet to make any comment.

The public inquiry was established by former Sinn Fein Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleior after the weeks of public wrangling that led to last week's Assembly election.

The inquiry, which could take up to a year, will look at the development and roll-out of the botched green energy scheme set up by the Stormont Executive almost four-and-a-half years ago.

It will also examine the signing-off of the project by the then Department of Finance; delays in implementing cost control measures before November 2015, which allowed a spike in applications; and then its eventual closure last year.

Mr O Muilleoir said Sir Patrick had made clear he would not produce an "interim" report into the 'cash for ash' scandal.

There had been speculation that if DUP leader Arlene Foster was prepared to step aside as First Minister after the election, she could potentially resume the role after a preliminary report from Sir Patrick.

In its early stages RHI was underspent by a total of £15m due to a lack of uptake.

However, applications spiked in April 2015, and before it closed in February last year around 2,000 farmers and businesses had availed of the scheme in which, for every £1 invested, users received £1.60 back.

The political fallout from the scandal, with the scheme predicted to cost Northern Ireland £490m, resulted in the resignation of Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

Mr O Muilleoir also said he hoped that the inquiry would be public and hopefully televised. Sir Patrick decided there would be no public hearings before the election.

"Rest assured every stone will be turned and there will be no dark corners where the light won't shine," Mr O Muilleoir added.

Sir Patrick will have absolute control over the scope and execution of the inquiry, which will be entirely independent.

No decision has yet been made on the venue, and there is no estimate of what the probe is likely to cost.

Before the election a judge ruled that the Economy Minister - then the DUP's Simon Hamilton - could make public the businesses which received subsidies under RHI.

The department said it would publish the details after they were thoroughly checked.

Belfast Telegraph


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