RHI inquiry needs to have the power to compel witnesses

Morning View
Morning View

There was near chaos in Stormont yesterday, after the Assembly was recalled to debate the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme scandal.

The speaker Robin Newton had a torrid time as he justified allowing a statement from the first minister, Arlene Foster, that – other MLAs insisted – should only be made by the joint department, which would require approval of Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister.

It is only fair to note that Mr Newton was struggling with an unprecedented situation, and that some of the tensions that were laid bare yesterday are rooted in the logical absurdities that flow from mandatory coalition. But while the dramatic scenes yesterday might have been symbolically significant, they are almost incidental to the core scandal.

The complexity of the RHI saga has only deepened in recent days. On pages two and three of today’s paper, we report that Mrs Foster was informed of whistleblower concerns.Even then however, there are many potentially benign explanations: almost any executive who runs a busy office, making multiple decisions and moving from meeting to meeting, is now deluged with emails, perhaps getting 100 or more a day.

Most such managers will concede that they are not fully on top of such mails and in a way they should not be: otherwise other duties could be neglected. Most such people admit that occasionally they miss important emails. The DUP has been releasing documents to defend its ministers’ record.

There are also less benign explanations for the oversight. This does mean the need for a comprehensive inquiry gets clearer. Arlene Foster was right not to step aside yesterday and the DUP are also right now to back an independent probe.

Whatever is exact format, it will need the power to compel witnesses and documents.

This is a complicated affair in which past decision making needs to be laid out in full and then carefully pieced together.

It will be a relief if malevolent motives can ultimately be ruled out and lessons learned from the mistakes made.