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Alban Maginness

How the RHI Inquiry report was something of a damp squib

Alban Maginness

Criticism of those involved in the green energy initiative was restrained but it is clear the Civil Service fell short of the competence expected, says Alban Maginness


RHI Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin

RHI Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin

RHI Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin

Those expecting fire and brimstone from the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry report will have been disappointed with its conclusions.

After three years of probing and at a cost of £14 million, the public will be perplexed at the failure of the report to live up to the expectations of major criticisms of those individuals personally responsible for the green energy scheme fiasco.

After all its undoubted labours, this elephantine inquiry has produced a mouse.

If the animated televised hearings of the inquiry by Sir Patrick Coghlin and his expert team were anything to go by, then the report should have been full of hard-hitting criticism and condemnation of the crass ineptitude of individuals responsible for this disastrous initiative, be they politicians, special ministerial advisers, or civil servants intimately involved in the creation, development and promotion of the flawed and grossly expensive green energy scheme.

But the report used language that was restrained and empty of any real punch.

In reviewing the totality of the report, one could be forgiven for wondering why this episode resulted in the sudden collapse of Stormont and the resultant political winter that lasted for three years.

The DUP as the party most intimately connected with this debacle must be greatly relieved with the report's tone and findings.

Though clearly hurt by the report, they come out of it damaged, but not seriously injured.

Arlene Foster, their leader and the Enterprise Minister at all material times responsible for initiating and managing the RHI scheme, received the equivalent of a yellow card.

She was effectively admonished for not reading the secondary legislation attached to the scheme, but little more.

Foster incurred a few scorch marks, but nothing worse and certainty nothing that would undermine her leadership of the DUP, or her position as the current First Minister.

In the aftermath of the report's limited findings against herself as minister she can live with any political opprobrium thrown at her by Sinn Fein, or any other political party.

Effectively, she has avoided major sanction, and because she has forthrightly expressed personal regret for her identified failings she is politically safe from any internal or external heave against her.

The report, however, has stronger criticisms of the involvement and questionable behaviour of some DUP Spads, who were involved in the background and the administrative management of the scheme.

In particular Dr Andrew Crawford, who held the key role as Foster's top adviser, crucially failed to inform his minister of the likelihood of a massive spike in applications to the scheme in the summer of 2015.

The inquiry also concluded that his suggestions for dealing with budget over-runs were aimed at benefiting poultry farmers, and indirectly Moy Park.

He also was criticised for providing confidential information to external parties including his family, who were involved in the poultry industry.

Other DUP spads, including Timothy Johnston, now DUP chief executive, were criticised for their behaviour in this saga.

The valuable role of special ministerial adviser was unquestionably damaged by their reprehensible behaviour, as outlined in the inquiry's hearings and its report. It is little wonder then that Sir Patrick Coghlin found that Spads wielded very significant power and did not feel accountable to their ministers. He also found that both the DUP and Sinn Fein appointed Spads contrary to the spirit, and perhaps even to the letter, of the law.

Not surprisingly those criticised are no longer Spads, although at least two of them have migrated to senior positions of responsibility within the DUP organisation.

However, it is the Civil Service that takes the biggest hit in all of this affair. It is hard to feel sorry for them when you view the totality of their collective, as well as individual, incompetence.

While the public had little faith in politicians here, they always felt confident that there was at least a competent and efficient Civil Service in the background.

The RHI hearings and the evidence it gathered made it abundantly clear that in the case of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry, there was a worrying lack of competence and efficiency.

Trusted civil servants misled and misinformed their minister Foster at crucial points in the process.

This has caused huge damage to the reputation of the Civil Service. Whether this damage can be quickly repaired remains to be seen, but it is essential that lessons be learnt by the Civil Service from this disastrous episode.

Instead of automatically promoting civil servants involved in this fiasco, institutional reform must be made a priority. Fresh leadership at all levels is required, even if this means making external appointments.

Good governance is not just about having good politicians, but is also dependent on having good civil servants. This bleak report sadly shows that the Civil Service was not up to the mark.

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