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Suzanne Breen

Many may now wonder if RHI inquiry was really worth its £7m price tag

Suzanne Breen


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The long awaited RHI Inquiry report was published on a Friday afternoon

The long awaited RHI Inquiry report was published on a Friday afternoon

The long awaited RHI Inquiry report was published on a Friday afternoon

The report into the biggest financial scandal in the history of devolution is due, and along comes coronavirus.

The DUP couldn't have hoped for better timing, but even conspiracy theorists would struggle to lay the blame for a global pandemic at the party's door.

The long awaited RHI Inquiry report was published on a Friday afternoon, typically the best time to bury bad news.

But it wouldn't have mattered had it been published first thing on a Monday morning - there was nothing in the document to unduly worry the DUP.

The party could have lived with everything bar a corruption finding. In the end, there wasn't even an allegation of gross incompetence directed at the Duppers - individually or collectively - in the report.

There was extensive criticism of the Civil Service. Yet it was all rather tame and tepid. The RHI Inquiry's oral hearings indicated that the opposite would be the case.

But if retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin earned a reputation during those hearings - and previously on the bench - for being blunt, the words he published yesterday appeared bland and banal by comparison. "Unacceptable" behaviour seemed to be the strongest phrase used. "Outrageously" unacceptable behaviour might have given the report a tad more energy.

Cash for ash brought down the last power-sharing executive, and at one stage threatened to end Arlene Foster's political career.

But everything in more recent times pointed to the report not fundamentally damaging the DUP leader.

Those who thought otherwise had either buried their heads in the sand, or believed their own propaganda. Arlene is going nowhere.

Mrs Foster and her former special advisers had advance sight of the parts of the report specifically referring to them. As publication day approached, there was nothing in their demeanour which suggested that they were worried.

Not only did the report not give the DUP a good kicking as some had hoped, it barely laid a glove on the party.

The DUP's opponents had claimed that corruption lay at the heart of the cash for ash scandal.

Sir Patrick profoundly disagreed. "Corrupt or malicious activity on the part of officials, ministers or special advisers was not the cause of what went wrong with the NI RHI scheme, albeit the inquiry has identified some instances where behaviour was unacceptable," he said.

"Rather the vast majority of what went wrong was due to an accumulation and compounding of errors and omissions over time..."

The tone of Mrs Foster's communication in the midst of the RHI scandal was awful. She came across as arrogant and not sufficiently apologetic.

She has learnt since then, and yesterday struck a much more appropriate tone. She again said sorry and stressed that neither herself, nor her party, were "immune from mistakes or misjudgments". She acknowledged that much legitimate criticism had been levelled at her but pointed out that claims her "actions or omissions" had been "motivated by some financial consideration" were now entirely disproved. On this she was wholly justified.

The return of devolution in January guaranteed that Mrs Foster was likely to get a considerably softer landing in terms of criticism from her political opponents.

The fact that the other big parties are all now partners in government with the DUP meant that their criticism would be more tempered.

That certainly seemed the case for Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance. Not so for the Ulster Unionists. Steve Aiken was scathing of the DUP in his response to the inquiry's findings.

TUV leader Jim Allister's disappointment in the report was barely concealed.

"By spreading the blame widely some may have escaped the sharper criticism that they deserved. Yet, the question remains 'will there be consequences for anyone?' In any other jurisdiction it is hard to imagine that heads would not roll."

Mr Allister certainly had a legitimate point, and ordinary members of the public reading the report may well wonder if it was worth the estimated £7m it has cost.

However, few will likely plough through its 656 pages written in a style that is more soporific than cutting-edge.

As journalists were reading the massive document in Stormont's Senate chamber before it was published yesterday, leading DUP figures were in the basement canteen.

Mrs Foster, the party's powerful chief executive Timothy Johnston, and director of communications John Robinson, chatted to staff and other politicians before sitting down to lunch.

Some of their political opponents will try to give legs to elements of the RHI Inquiry's findings. But they're fighting a losing battle.

Cash for ash already seems to be yesterday's story for a public focusing on coronavirus. There's little in the report for anyone to run with anyway. The heat has gone out of RHI.

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