Jonathan Bell’s RHI claims reaffirm the need for an inquiry

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Morning View

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There have been countless political dramas in Northern Ireland since the country was created almost a century ago.

But there has never been a political interview like the one last night hosted by Stephen Nolan.

The former Enterprise and Trade minister Jonathan Bell’s claims about the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme are extraordinary and profoundly serious.

The first minster, Arlene Foster, has flatly denied the parts of Mr Bell’s version of events that she had heard by the time the programme was aired. She had not, when interviewed by Mr Nolan, seen the Bell interview but was asked about a confrontation with him. Both agree there was a row but there is a chasm between the two versions. She says he was intimidating, he says she angrily ordered him to keep RHI open.

Mrs Foster has a long reputation for ministerial competence. She is a strong leader who is plainly devoted to Northern Ireland and a role model for women in the Province. This newspaper hopes that she can lead unionism to further electoral success. We in no way seek to undermine her hard-earned authority or seek to pre-judge this saga when we say that it has to proceed to a formal investigation.

We had already called for a probe. It is now unavoidable.

Mr Bell is saying senior civil servants were telling him the scheme had to close urgently due to spiralling costs. He says special advisors and Mrs Foster ordered him to keep it open.

The civil servants will have to be interviewed as to whether they were urgently calling for closure, although they will not be able to shed light on the heated internal DUP meeting.

It was clear before last night’s interview that the RHI over-spend was a scandal of immense proportions, even if the failure to put in basic cost controls was due to incompetence.

Mr Bell is claiming a calculated attempt to keep open an unlimited scheme, despite anxiety at spiralling costs. The vast loss to Northern Ireland’s finances requires a rigorous inquiry. It is no insult to Stormont’s PAC to wonder if it is up to such a significant and demanding role.

• Previous News Letter editorials:

December 13: RHI incompetence challenges the very notion of devolution

December 8: RHI saga shows at best a failure to understand human nature

December 10: The renewable heat scandal is worthy of formal investigation