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The 'guilty' parties of the RHI report know who they are but no-one is looking for heads to roll

Ivan Little wades through the RHI report and answers some of the key questions


Journalists get a look at the report.

Journalists get a look at the report.

Pellets burning inside a biomass boiler on the farm of a poultry farmer

Pellets burning inside a biomass boiler on the farm of a poultry farmer



Journalists get a look at the report.

Speculation about the long-awaited Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) report predicted that its findings could rock Stormont to its very foundations. Is it shaking?

A Well, not quite. The language used by Sir Patrick Coghlin and his inquiry team, Dame Una O'Brien and Dr Keith McLean, is carefully measured in its tone.

Their criticisms - and there are plenty of them - are generally couched in restrained terms with "unacceptable behaviour" their most fiery barb, but their observations are no less stinging because of that.

The 'guilty' parties certainly know who they are. Their ears will be burning just as much as the RHI boilers in the scheme did when it opened in 2012 and paid 1,200 businesses to change to environmentally-friendly heating using wood pellets instead of gas and oil.

The only problem for the government, not for the people who signed up to the scheme, was that subsidies were bigger than the price of the fuel so the more you burnt, the more you earned.

Q So, who does the inquiry say was responsible for the debacle?

A A wide range of people have been apportioned blame in the 656-page report, which runs to over three volumes comprising 276,000 words.

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Politicians like Arlene Foster have been cited but civil servants and special advisers take a hammering, too, in Sir Patrick's report, which the chairman has urged people to read in its entirety. Significantly, his team questions the whole implementation of the cash-for-ash scheme right from the very start. They bluntly say the non-domestic RHI scheme was a "project too far" for the Northern Ireland government.

The report goes on: "While motivated by the laudable aim of encouraging the use of renewables rather than fossil fuels in heat production, the Northern Ireland stand-alone scheme should never have been adopted."

The inquiry team, however, say corruption and malicious activity were not the cause of what went wrong, but rather a "compounding of errors and omissions and a failure of attention".

Q Arlene Foster was the Deti minister in charge of bringing in the scheme and there were reports that she might bow to pressure and resign as the scale of the overspend emerged. How does she fare in the report?

A The RHI inquiry team do criticise Mrs Foster for her handling of the scheme after she signed off on it, but whispered forecasts that the current First Minister would be hung out to dry have not been realised.

The report, however, takes Mrs Foster to task over the evidence she gave to the inquiry when she said she didn't actually read the regulations on the scheme before bringing it to the Assembly.

The report says: "The minister, in presenting the regulations to the Assembly and asking for their approval, should have read them herself.

"Not least because in the inquiry's view to so do is a core part of a minister's job."

However, the report acknowledges that in 2012 Mrs Foster was told incorrectly by officials that the RHI scheme was projected to provide the highest renewable heat at the best value.

The report goes on: "While the minister should not have been presented with a document which lacked all the necessary cost information, she equally should not have signed it in those circumstances."

It also says that the arrangement between Mrs Foster and her special adviser Andrew Crawford concerning the division of responsibility between them for reading, analysing and digesting important documents was ineffective, and led to "false assurance" on her part about the level of scrutiny applied to detailed technical reports.

Q The Spads, oh yes, the Spads. The role of some of them in the RHI scheme was contentious, to say the least. What does the RHI inquiry make of them?

A They first of all highlight a failure to comply with the Civil Service (Special Advisers) Act and the mandatory codes introduced with regard to the appointment and conduct of the Spads.

The failure, they say, was quite widespread and had a particular bearing on the RHI scheme because it especially undermined the trust between Arlene Foster's successor as Deti minister Jonathan Bell and his Spad Timothy Cairns. The report also says there was no effective system in force for special advisers to register their interests on a 'sufficiently regular basis'.

The inquiry team also speak of 'unacceptable behaviour' by Spads including one adviser, Andrew Crawford. In chapter 31 of the report it says: "The inquiry finds it totally unacceptable that Dr Crawford provided confidential information to external parties including his family."

The report says: "Another [instance] in relation to RHI involved a number of special advisers, along with a minister, discussing a plan, later put into effect, to disclose emails relating to junior civil servants in order to divert the attention of the media away from their party."

Chapter 44 of the report names the advisers as Andrew Crawford, John Robinson and Richard Bullick, and the minister as Simon Hamilton of the DUP. "It was a quite extraordinary and unacceptable step for an Executive minister to acquiesce," says the report.

Q The inquiry heard some odd things about how Stormont was run back in the day, especially about how the taking of minutes sometimes lapsed on the insistence of the politicians. How does the report view that practice?

A The report is damning about the role of civil servants particularly within Deti. It says basic administration and record keeping which are "normally the bedrock of the Civil Service were lacking within Deti on too many occasions". It says: "Several important meetings and discussions were not properly recorded in writing. The requirements of Deti private office guidelines in respect of the minuting of meetings with the minister were routinely not followed by officials."

The report says the practice led to uncertainty about what discussions had actually taken place about the scheme and on what basis decisions were taken. It adds that the lack of notes led to challenges not only for officials in government but also for the inquiry itself.

Q Whistle-blower Janette O'Hagan tried to highlight the flaws in the RHI scheme on more than one occasion but largely to no avail. What does the inquiry say about how she was treated?

A The report, which slams Deti for not taking heed of other warnings to review the RHI scheme - a missed opportunity, it calls it - is highly critical of its treatment of Janette O'Hagan.

It calls her a "concerned citizen" rather than a whistle-blower and it says between 2013 and 2015 she repeatedly contacted Deti to point out the risks of exploitation of the RHI scheme and her concerns that it was being misused.

The report says: "The treatment of this individual and of her attempts at communicating her concerns to the department fell well below the standard that she was entitled to expect."

Among other warnings which also came to nothing, says the report, were ones from a junior official who had a detailed working knowledge of the scheme and who was starting to have concerns about it by May 2014 when he made a "commendable" effort to pass on "key knowledge in a handover document". But it says his effort had insufficient impact and never reached anyone senior at the appropriate time.

Q The row over RHI was at least partly responsible for bringing down the Assembly. Will this report lead to another collapse?

A That is unlikely. Sinn Fein may have clearly had a fair wind of some of what was, and what was not, coming in the report and if the findings had been critical of the DUP it is hard to imagine that they would have gone back into an Executive with them.

Arlene Foster yesterday apologised for the errors that she and the DUP made and said that she was determined to learn from her mistakes and not to repeat them.

Sinn Fein's Finance Minister Conor Murphy was not looking for any heads to roll yesterday. He said it was the responsibility of the Executive to put the report's recommendations into action to change the system.

Q So, what are those recommendations from Sir Patrick and his team?

A Well, they number 44 in total and focus particularly on the relationships between the Civil Service and the government.

But the report adds a caveat that there is no guarantee that the weaknesses shown in governance, staffing and leadership revealed by the inquiry's investigation of RHI could not combine again to undermine some future initiative. Significantly, the report says there should be better training for civil servants and improvements in the operation of special advisers.

The recommendations will now be studied in detail by the various 'players' in the RHI drama which had been expected to dominate the news agendas in Northern Ireland for several days but which was yesterday overshadowed at Stormont by another more deadly crisis over coronavirus.

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