Belfast Telegraph

Head of Northern Ireland Civil Service denies blaming colleague for RHI scandal to get promotion

By Allan Preston

The head of the Northern Ireland civil service has denied blaming a colleague for the Renewable Heat Incentive to secure a promotion.

David Sterling appeared before the RHI public inquiry on Thursday.

He dismissed a claim by a former DUP adviser that he tried to pin the RHI failings on fellow civil servant Dr Andrew McCormick.

Both Mr Sterling and Dr McCormick had been in line to succeed the former top civil servant Sir Malcolm McKibben.

His evidence also included details of how "febrile" political tensions nearly derailed any chance of bringing RHI under control.

In January 2015, Mr Sterling was the top civil servant at the department of finance.

He sent an email to Dr McCormick, then heading the Department for Enterprise (Deti), asking how his department had got RHI so wrong.

The ex-DUP adviser Tim Cairns said Dr McCormick believed at the time he was being unfairly blamed.

Mr Sterling rejected the accusation he did this to gain an advantage, saying "it's just not in my nature to seek to do something like that".

Having known Dr McCormick for 18 years, Mr Sterling said he regarded him as a friend and that he would never try to shift blame towards him.

Another accusation was that Mr Sterling had a major row with the DUP adviser Dr Andrew Crawford.

Dr Crawford removed a reference to the poultry industry in a key document about reducing spending on RHI.

It emerged that some poultry farmers were exploiting the scheme by heating empty sheds to get more government subsidies.

Three relatives of Dr Crawford had 11 biomass boilers between them that were registered with RHI.

Mr Sterling said he didn't know if Dr Crawford removed the poultry reference for political purposes or the benefit of his family.

The former DUP Minister Jonathan Bell claimed he'd heard that Mr Sterling told Dr Crawford:  "You kept this scheme open for the benefit of your family and you've caused a significant budgetary crisis in Northern Ireland."

Mr Sterling, however, said he would have remembered any such exchange and that he couldn't recall Dr Crawford's family being raised as a significant issue.

He went on to detail the many hurdles the civil service faced in securing the closure of RHI.

In early 2016, Mr Sterling said Stormont ministers hoped the Treasury would bail them out.

In contrast, civil servants had been told there was no chance as extra money had just been given after the Fresh Start Agreement.

Mr Sterling said he believed the Treasury was growing tired of how Northern Ireland "always does well when there are political negotiations".

This was confirmed by a letter from the Treasury in January 2016, making it clear the Stormont Executive would be paying the bill.

Initially, it was believed this would overrun by £33m, something the Department of Enterprise could not afford.

At this time he said there was a consensus RHI needed to be shut down, the only question was how quickly due to fears of a legal challenge.

The DUP and Sinn Fein agreed to shut the scheme down, but with a two week grace period.

Sinn Fein had asked for the extension, allowing nearly 300 more people to apply at an estimated cost of £91.5m over 20 years.

Although officials didn't know the cost the delay would have, Mr Sterling said:  "There wasn't much more we really could do whenever the First Minister or Deputy First Minister had agreed that this was the way that they wanted to play it."

When the RHI scandal truly broke at the end of December 2016, Mr Sterling said the "political crisis" between the DUP and Sinn Fein held up attempts to cut RHI subsidies.

He said "the pretty torid" period was made worse by key documents being leaked to the media.

The fear was the impending collapse of Stormont meant there would be no way to legislate on crucial matters.

The cost controls were eventually passed in January 2017, but Mr Sterling said the "febrile" political atmosphere at the time made this especially hard.

The inquiry heard that the former DUP economy minister Simon Hamiton had been concerned by "foot-dragging" by Sinn Fein's finance minister at the time Mairtin O Muilleoir over approving the new regulations in January 2017.

"I was seriously concerned (by the delay) because there was a lot at stake," Mr Sterling said.

At the time the Assembly was about to collapse for a new election leaving a limited time to approve the business case.

"My personal calculation was that Mr O Muilleoir would approve the business case...to be candid, in the political environment at the time he wasn't likely to make that easy and it would go to the wire, and so it transpired."

Inquiry counsel Joseph Aiken asked Mr Sterling about how the civil service could restore public confidence.

Mr Sterling said: "It's only right to recognise the extent of the failings and I should offer a profound and unequivocal apology for the mistakes made."

He also promised that any recommendations made by the inquiry will be implemented quickly.

"There's still a bit of a silo-based mentality in departments, that's something we're trying to break down," he said.

Other areas of concern included problems with secret documents being leaked to the press

Looking ahead, Mr Sterling said the civil service was still facing profound challenges.

"The obvious point is that we're heading towards two years without ministerial direction, something that would not be tolerated anywhere else on these islands," he said.

"We have another five months without that. The Secretary of State's guidance is welcome... but this will be an intensely difficult period."

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