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Former Belfast Telegraph Editor Edmund (Ed) Curran.

RHI report must be spark for the root-and-branch reform of Stormont

Ed Curran


Sir Patrick Coghlin

Sir Patrick Coghlin

Sir Patrick Coghlin

The findings of the RHI Inquiry pale against the life-and-death challenge of the coronavirus facing everyone in Northern Ireland. Those whose roles were investigated, from First Minister Arlene Foster and the DUP, to other Stormont politicians and parties, to special advisers and the Civil Service, should consider themselves fortunate that the general public has much else of deeper concern at this time.

Too much has been invested in this costly three-year inquiry to let the findings pass without fundamental reform of how Stormont works.

Because of incompetence, negligence and highly questionable behaviour, the whole system of governance of Northern Ireland has been thrown into question, brought to its knees for three years, and shown not fit for purpose. This country became the butt of jokes far beyond these shores. Political brick walls were erected in attempts to mask the truth from the public. The media was pilloried by some politicians for daring to shed a light on the RHI scandal.

Today those to whom Sir Patrick Coghlin attributes responsibility should hang their heads in shame and willingly accept blame for what they did to damage devolution. But will they? Or will this forensic examination of their behaviour in the years leading up to the RHI revelations be lost in the crisis over coronavirus, or acted upon insufficiently at Stormont?

The Coghlin report paints a picture of a parochial Assembly, charged with the administration of billions of pounds of taxpayers' money, which, when it came to developing policy, was found seriously ill-equipped.

First there was the minister, Arlene Foster, who admitted she did not read significant documents for which she carried the can.

Then there was her senior civil servant who admitted that at times he seemed as ignorant of the facts about a multi-million scheme as she was.

Also there were middle-ranking and junior public servants who were under pressure and could not deal with the complexity of RHI. Last but not least were the 'Spads', special advisers, who really ran the roost at Stormont and were a law unto themselves.

This is a story which tells you that ministers and civil servants in Stormont's devolved administration were not fit for purpose on RHI. If today's revived power-sharing Executive and Assembly are to avoid another such debacle, the workings of Stormont need serious overhaul and much closer scrutiny than has hitherto been the case.

Arlene "accountable but not responsible" Foster could have stepped down in December 2016 but she didn't and, as a result, precipitated a public inquiry.

Today she may feel justified in brazening out her assertion that she was not properly advised, that it was some of those around her, from civil servants to special advisers, who were more culpable.

However, she brought upon herself and her party a level of embarrassing scrutiny which laid bare the unedifying workings of DUP ministers and their special advisers.

The collapse of power-sharing after the RHI revelations had consequences which Northern Ireland continues to live with to this day, not least in the stagnation in the past three years of our health and education services.

No minister at Westminster could have survived so much public approbation, but Mrs Foster remains as DUP leader. She has seen off those critics and commentators who engaged in wishful thinking that the RHI Inquiry would be the end of her.

Meanwhile, others who were prominent in the RHI scandal have already left the stage - notably Mairtin O Muilleoir, the former Sinn Fein Finance Minister, and David Sterling, permanent secretary to Foster in her much-criticised Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

In admitting that he was not fully abreast of what was going on in his department, Mr Sterling gave the minister responsible - Arlene Foster - a valid reason to explain why she was not up to speed on RHI.

Despite accepting serious failings in his department to the RHI Inquiry, Mr Sterling was promoted to head of the Civil Service only to retire before Christmas, well in advance of the report publication.

Others who are no more at Stormont and who figured largely in the RHI report include Jonathan Bell, who left the DUP and politics altogether; Simon Hamilton, once the DUP's potential leader and now chief executive of Belfast Chamber of Commerce and Trade; DUP special advisers Andrew Crawford, rebuffed for leaking confidential RHI information to his family, and Stephen Brimstone, who had an RHI boiler heating his home.

Though the focus of the RHI inquiry was on Mrs Foster and the DUP, other parties can hardly feel relief from Friday's findings. The level of oversight at Stormont was woefully lacking. In short, the Stormont Executive and the Assembly were not doing their jobs with the due diligence that the public should expect from elected representatives. It is little wonder that Sir Patrick recommends beefing up scrutiny through the Audit Office and Assembly committees.

The RHI report highlights three aspects of Stormont which require attention: the lack of proper oversight at Stormont, the failure of the Civil Service, and the use of well-paid, unelected and often faceless figures as special advisers.

No corruption. No malice aforethought. But plenty of incompetence, negligence and highly questionable behaviour. Above all, an abysmal failure to deliver the level of oversight that the public should expect with regard to the spending of taxpayers' money.

That is the conclusion to be drawn from the findings of Sir Patrick Coghlin's 650-page report on the RHI scandal. It raises the question: did we really need a public inquiry, costing £7m, involving over a million pieces of evidence, culminating in three volumes and 55 chapters of the report published on Friday?

The answer is yes, because it appears the system of Stormont government was so flawed and seemingly incapable of change that only an outside observer like Sir Patrick Coghlin could identify what was wrong and recommend, as he has done so comprehensively, how to put it right.

In doing so, everyone at Stormont must now take stock.

Ministers, civil servants, special advisers and outside consultants have all been found out. Their performance did not meet appropriate standards and, if devolution is to survive at Stormont, must now be subject to a sustained major review.

First Minister Foster will feel relieved that any criticism of her oversight, or lack of it, on RHI was so politely measured in the findings.

Ill-informed she was by those supposed to advise her, but nevertheless it is surely a poor reflection on her leadership that as the minister responsible she failed to read important documents and asked so few questions.

The brunt of criticism falls on the Civil Service, which is painted as not fit for purpose, and on ministerial special advisers, whose wings need severely clipped.

The list of recommendations amounts to fundamental reform of how Stormont works. Not before time.

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