RHI public inquiry delayed after amassing 880,000 pages of evidence

RHI Inquiry Chairman, the Right Honourable Sir Patrick Coghlin.  Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
RHI Inquiry Chairman, the Right Honourable Sir Patrick Coghlin. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

The public inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive has amassed a vast body of evidence which now stands at 880,000 pages, delaying the first public evidence session as lawyers work through the material.

The revelation emerged yesterday at Stormont where the retired High Court judge investigating the ‘cash for ash’ scandal which was the catalyst for the collapse of devolution in January set out the progress which his inquiry has made behind closed doors.

Sir Patrick Coghlin also made clear that he will not even begin hearing evidence from witnesses in public until the end of November – almost a year after the BBC Spotlight investigative programme which brought the scandal to wider prominence, precipitating a political crisis.

The inquiry, which was set up in January, has been quietly securing a vast body of evidence, much of it acquired either under its sweeping powers to compel documentation or via detailed written questions to individuals involved with the scheme.

It is understood that the team of lawyers and administrators working to support Sir Patrick has swollen from 10 individuals to about 35.

At a preliminary hearing yesterday in the old Senate Chamber in Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Sir Patrick said that more than 470 notices compelling documentation or evidence had been served by the inquiry.

He said that the notices had allowed the inquiry to collect “a huge amount of evidence” and contributed to a delay in it beginning to hear evidence in public.

The judge had initially intended to commence hearings at the start of October but has now “reluctantly” decided to delay the first hearing until November 7, with the first witnesses not appearing in public until November 28.

Sir Patrick also indicated that the most senior figures – among them DUP leader Arlene Foster and interim head of the civil service David Sterling – would be called at the end of the inquiry’s oral hearings, with more junior officials appearing first.

Although there is no public timetable, that means that Mrs Foster and other senior figures may not give evidence in person until perhaps next Easter.

It is not yet clear whether the inquiry ever intends to publish all of the evidence submitted to it.

However, yesterday Sir Patrick made clear that sections of what is published will be blacked out “in the public interest”, such as information which is commercially sensitive or related to investigations, but insisted that he was committed to making the inquiry “as open and transparent as possible”.

Sir Patrick said it had been a “mammoth task” to go through the documentation. Although he said that the inquiry was making “strong progress” in working through the paperwork, Sir Patrick warned that “the size of this task, given the breadth of the inquiry’s terms of reference, should not be underestimated”.

The inquiry chairman added: “By and large, the inquiry has been impressed by, and grateful for, the cooperation which it has received from those who have been approached by it.

“We acknowledge the efforts being made by those concerned in order to allow the inquiry to proceed with its work, and we are hopeful for, and expect, the same efficient cooperation all round as we progress to the public hearings phase of our work. All those concerned have a duty to the public to ensure that the inquiry can conduct its work efficiently, effectively and expeditiously.”

Andrew Trimble, chair of the Renewable Heat Association, which represents almost 600 RHI claimants, said that he was urging them to cooperate fully with the inquiry.

Mr Trimble said: “The association places great trust in the public inquiry and has been pleased to cooperate with it, to date.

“We have encouraged and enabled our members to address the nine questions posed to them by the inquiry.

“Previously, only 80 of the scheme participants had responded.”

Mr Trimble said that his association had also informed the inquiry of “a complaint and ensuing criminal investigation into the ‘leaking’ of personal information of scheme members to the press, earlier this year”.