Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: RHI inquiry may turn into farce, but in the end, the joke is on us

Editor's Viewpoint

Any impresario trying to bill the RHI inquiry would be spoiled for choice. It is undoubtedly a drama about a scheme which racked up a huge debt in public money.

But it is also a whodunnit. Who was responsible for devising a scheme which was fundamentally flawed from the outset and then allowed to continue for too long, literally burning a hole in public finances?

And this week it has elements of farce descending into the theatre of the absurd as evidence of a dysfunctional administration at Stormont before the Executive finally imploded was laid before the tribunal.

There was a very diverse cast of characters - former DETI Minister Jonathan Bell, the then permanent secretary at his department, a number of DUP special advisers, the former head of communications at the Executive Office and a respected Sky News correspondent.

Centre stage was Mr Bell, a man who portrayed himself as a God-fearing man who was plotted against by his own party special advisers and even party colleagues.

He claimed unelected DUP special advisers had taken most of the decisions during devolution over the head of ministers.

He also alleged they had also conspired to stop him closing the scheme earlier than they wanted and refused to allow the issue to be included on the agenda of any meeting. However Andrew McCormick permanent secretary at DETI said he had no evidence to back this up.

It was all riveting reading or viewing for the public who were being given an apparent peep behind the usual facade of government - a peep which the DUP obviously would have hoped no-one ever gained.

But Mr Bell also had juicy hints of alleged misbehaviour by two former DUP ministers although the inquiry quickly closed down this line of evidence.

Former head of communications at the Executive Office David Gordon also found himself drawn into the limelight with Mr Bell claiming that he had labelled the Minister a monster who had to be put to sleep.

Mr Bell also alleged that David Blevins, Sky News' man in Ireland, had advised the DUP on how to discredit him by attacking his Christian faith. The news organisation has vehemently denied this claim.

However it has to be remembered that the RHI scandal played a large part in the collapse of the Executive 20 months ago and left the province without a functioning administration for all of that time while serious problems continue to pile up in areas as diverse as health, infrastructure, education, the arts and voluntary sectors.

It can be argued that we get the politicians we vote for. It is also clear that in this instance civil servants were also guilty of dropping the baton, as Mr McCormick admitted.

The final curtain cannot fall quickly enough on this inquiry for those involved. But it is unlikely they will find much solace in the review of their performance which will eventually emerge.

In the meantime the Secretary of State has bowed to the inevitable and agreed to cut MLAs' salaries in two stages starting in November from £49,500 to £35,888.

Few will feel any sympathy for members of the DUP and Sinn Fein whose gift it is to restore devolution but it is harsh treatment of the other parties who have shown a desire to go back into government but who lack the numbers to make that happen and for now must remain in the wings.

Belfast Telegraph

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