Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Inquiry's revelations were hard to believe

Sir Patrick Coghlin
Sir Patrick Coghlin

Editor's Viewpoint

As the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry comes to an end, it is still difficult for members of the public to come to terms with the dysfunctional nature of the devolved administration at Stormont which it revealed.

Even distinguished former judge and chair of the inquiry, Sir Patrick Coghlin, through whose clinical probing and that of his team the astonishing facts surrounding the RHI debacle were laid bare, seemed at times bemused at what he was hearing.

While we cannot pre-judge what the inquiry report will say, from the facts put into the public domain, the way government - in this case the departments controlled by the DUP - operated was far from the image most people have of a democratic administration.

We were introduced to a bizarre Alice in Wonderland world, where nothing was as it seemed.

In the public imagination the spending of public money is taken extremely seriously and new initiatives such as RHI would be rigorously examined and proper checks and balances put in place.

How far from the truth that appeared. The civil service was ill-prepared to introduce the scheme, woefully undermanned for the scale of the task and the politicians charged with signing off on the scheme admitted they had not read the information on it in any detail.

Every opportunity to correct fundamental flaws in the scheme was missed or dismissed, even when a whistleblower pointed out what was blindingly obvious to her.

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We were also introduced to the mysterious world of Spads, special advisers who, in the case of the DUP and presumably in other parties, had enormous influence to the extent - although this was challenged - that only Arlene Foster as leader of the party was more influential.

Astonishingly, the acting head of the civil service admitted that no notes were taken of crucial meetings across government, as the DUP and Sinn Fein were thought to be sensitive to any information getting out from such meetings. State papers in 30 or 50 years' time will make sparse reading and historians will have to look to this inquiry to see how government really operated - or didn't.

The inquiry has introduced the disinfectant of sunshine into the working of government here. Perhaps, even by inference, the report will set out a template for a future administration, to make it more accountable and transparent.

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