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Suzanne Breen

Explainer: Why Arlene Foster's job is safe after RHI report targets civil servants

Suzanne Breen


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Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin presents the findings  at the launch event to publish the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Inquiry Report in the Long Gallery, Parliament Buildings. Pacemaker Press 13/03/2020

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin presents the findings at the launch event to publish the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Inquiry Report in the Long Gallery, Parliament Buildings. Pacemaker Press 13/03/2020

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin presents the findings at the launch event to publish the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Inquiry Report in the Long Gallery, Parliament Buildings. Pacemaker Press 13/03/2020

Those who wanted the DUP to get a kicking in the RHI Inquiry report were doomed to disappointment. The party received the lightest of light touches.

It was for the civil service and ‘the system’ in general that Sir Patrick Coghlin and his team reserved the greatest criticism.

The much anticipated report provided no fireworks. It turned out to be the proverbial damp squib.

The language used was underwhelming to say the least. Few members of the public will bother wading through its 656 pages. Compared to the RHI oral hearings, there was nothing passionate, punchy or eye-catching here.

“Ineffective” was the strongest adjective used against any of the RHI players. Some observers will surely now question whether the £7m inquiry was worth it.

The DUP’s opponents 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 Northern Ireland RHI scheme (albeit the inquiry has identified some instances where behaviour was unacceptable,” the report states.

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

The DUP leader’s job is safe. The fire has gone out of RHI.

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Copies of the published report from Sir Patrick Coghlin's Renewable Heat Incentive public inquiry outside Stormont in Belfast. PA Photo. Picture date: Friday March 13, 2020.

Copies of the published report from Sir Patrick Coghlin's Renewable Heat Incentive public inquiry outside Stormont in Belfast. PA Photo. Picture date: Friday March 13, 2020.

PA

Copies of the published report from Sir Patrick Coghlin's Renewable Heat Incentive public inquiry outside Stormont in Belfast. PA Photo. Picture date: Friday March 13, 2020.

The media received an advance copy of the report at midday, two hours before publication. As journalists were reading the massive document in Stormont’s Senate chamber, leading DUP figures were in the basement canteen below.

Arlene 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.

The report provided next to nothing for the trio to worry about. Mrs Foster’s head was most definitely not on the plate.

Her grasp of the RHI details when Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) minister was noted, but it was stressed that she at times received inaccurate information from civil servants who were ill-equipped to manage the scheme.

The DUP leader’s special adviser in the department, Andrew Crawford, had three close relatives who between them had 11 RHI boilers. He twice sent confidential RHI information to his poultry farming cousin Richard.

The report was far more gentle on him that had been anticipated. Although he was criticised, Sir Patrick concluded that the key allegation against Mr Crawford was untrue – “he did not deliberately delay the introduction of (RHI) cost controls”.

A finding of corruption at Stormont would have destroyed the DUP and ended Mrs Foster’s career. The party could have lived with one of gross incompetence. In the end, it didn’t face even that.

The DUP leader’s job is safe. The fire has gone out of RHI.

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