Belfast Telegraph

RHI Inquiry: Low-key start to proceedings but fireworks lie ahead

By Suzanne Breen

It's almost a year since the RHI scheme began making headlines, but on the streets it no longer seems to be a burning issue.

An Irish Language Act and a host of other matters may dominate our political agenda today but cash-for-ash arguably remains more important than them all. It goes right to the heart of decision-making under devolution.

If corruption or serial gross incompetence is revealed by the RHI inquiry, then it will have massive implications for the public's already crumbling faith in the entire Stormont system.

With a potential overspend of £700m, this disastrous energy scheme affects us all. There should be no sectarian squabbling over the disgrace that is cash-for-ash.

As the inquiry opened yesterday, public expectation was mixed with cynicism that it would be yet another lengthy exercise which will cost a lot but find no-one, or certainly no-one of any importance, culpable.

There were certainly no fireworks during the first public session in Parliament Buildings. It was all rather mundane and much of the inquiry's business will be turgid stuff. But make no mistake about it, drama lies ahead. The key appearances will be by former DUP minister Jonathan Bell and party leader Arlene Foster.

Mr Bell's explosive TV interview with the BBC's Stephen Nolan was referred to yesterday. "What has been revealed to date is only the tip of the iceberg. There is much, much more to come," he said earlier this year.

With the hearings broadcast, the public will be able to watch Mr Bell and Mrs Foster give evidence under oath and make up their own mind on their credibility as witnesses.

Five former DUP special advisers will also be put under the spotlight, and two could be potentially the most significant witnesses.

The DUP is the only party for which the RHI inquiry could prove damaging. There may be minor questions over Michelle O'Neill's promotion of the energy scheme as agriculture minister, but these are small beer compared to the scrutiny facing the DUP.

The key issues are the delay in introducing cost controls and the spike in applications.

Retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, who is chairing the inquiry, is described in legal circles as "straightforward to deal with" and "brusque, old-fashioned, independent and fair".

He was active as a rugby player until relatively recently. The aggression, agility and willingness to tackle fearlessly demanded of him on the field will certainly be needed at the RHI inquiry over the coming months.

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