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Tom Kelly

RHI report a slap on the wrist for Stormont politicians who will sleep easy tonight

Tom Kelly


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Sir Patrick Coghlin addressing the opening of the inquiry

Sir Patrick Coghlin addressing the opening of the inquiry

PA

Sir Patrick Coghlin addressing the opening of the inquiry

They say always read the book before seeing a movie but today, the book fell a bit flat. The RHI Inquiry finally made its long awaited report. It is an expensive ( and expansive) read.

Much of the expected fizz dissipated earlier this year when journalist Sam McBride published his excellent book ‘Burned’.

In parts ‘Burned’ read like a racy John Grisham novel; while the over 600 pages of the inquiry report looks as enticing to read as that well-known informative guide to tractor restoration ‘How to keep your Tractor Happy and Your Family Running’.

In fairness, Sir Patrick and his esteemed panel members were forensic, detailed, diligent and focused. Their job was to bring clarity to what seemed like a three ringed circus of inept ministers, incompetent civil servants and an insidious sect of special advisors.

But neither the book or the report could ever really compete with the unfolding drama which occurred during the actual inquiry hearings.

We heard about politicians with pugilistic tendencies, tearful (and sometimes fearful) special advisors. And of course, a class of civil servants who looked like they had been chosen for cryogenic selection. Ministers with Teflon hands and tin ears lined up to give evidence.

The scenes were gripping at news-time. As the big names appeared before the inquiry, the media went into a spin. But much of the detail was turgid.

The Executive seemed dysfunctional and it was. Even now the Executive ministers still paper over cracks with photo opportunities.

But the inquiry broadcasts were akin to having colonic surgery performed on live TV. Everything was there to see.

Cutting at the underbelly of government is never pretty. But it is hard to believe reading this report, that it was the RHI debacle which was at the heart of Sinn Fein pulling out of the Executive.

Hardly a cheep from Sinn Fein today. No faux outrage. All very civilised — after 36 months of verbal combat.

So three years on and after all the filtering of the facts, the fiction and the fecklessness, what has Sir Patrick and his team concluded?

In his document of 656 pages there are a whopping 319 findings and no fewer than 44 recommendations for changes and improvements.

But much of the report contains a lot about what we already knew. RHI was a deeply flawed scheme.

Much of the blame lies at the door of the Department of Enterprise and Industry. The report’s authors said that they could not even get the basics right — book keeping and taking notes.

Whether heads within the civil service will roll depends largely on the findings of the internal reports commissioned.

The Head of the Civil Service (who was the then Permanent Secretary at DETI) has already announced his retirement. Perhaps when replacing him both the DUP and Sinn Fein will see some merit in having an outsider in this role.

So, everyone gets a slap on the wrists but the civil service gets the cane. It is best summed up as everyone was to blame so there is no one to blame. Remarkable given the millions wasted on the RHI scheme.

The report provides for a nice safety net for everyone involved. A soft landing for the political classes and civil service. It is as gentle as calling time in a pub.

To the relief of some and the disappointment of others, there has been no evidence of political corruption.

Arlene Foster will feel relief more than anything. Only the usual online trolls and conspiracy theorists believed that anything corrupt was going on.

Foster has to be slightly embarrassed at some of the comments referring to her in the report.

Her special advisor was given far too much reign. Certainly there is nothing in the report which taints her reputation or ignites a leadership challenge.

The Spad system under the DUP was beyond broken. The leadership should have recognised this. The appointments process appeared almost feudal.

It is difficult to see how much effort the DUP will put into reforming the role of special advisors when some of the players are still in prominent positions within that party.

It is a measure of what we have come to expect in modern Irish and British public life that being merely incompetent and inept can spare blushes as well as save careers.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of the Coghlin report was the comment that the RHI was “a project too far for the NI Executive”. In other words, it was beyond their pay grade.

This is worrying because the NI Executive is made up of politicians with little experience or skill in managing people, let alone large scale infrastructural projects.

The Assembly is the same. Questions to policy experts by MLAs at committees can really demonstrate woeful degrees of ignorance.

The RHI Inquiry was an expensive but essential way to ensure some transparency and accountability actually exists in our political system.

Let us learn from this that civil servants are not above scrutiny but are sometimes the brakes for errant ministers who may act against the public interest.

Politicians must always be held responsible for their actions and the actions of those they employ.

Those in the Executive will sleep easy after this report.

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