RHI scandal: Cross-party pressure for judge-led public inquiry

Arlene Foster pictured on Friday at the opening of Christopher Stalford's new office in South Belfast.
Picture By: Arthur Allison.

Arlene Foster pictured on Friday at the opening of Christopher Stalford's new office in South Belfast. Picture By: Arthur Allison.

Last night there was a growing momentum towards the investigation of the Renewable Heat Incentive being put into the hands of a public inquiry, as party after party said that the current investigation by the Assembly is inadequate.

Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has been holding hearings into the RHI scandal since September, with some of those meetings taking place in public and some being behind closed doors.

Much crucial evidence – some of which formed the basis for much of the BBC Spotlight programme which last week brought the matter to wider public attention – has emerged through the PAC hearings.

However, yesterday politicians and members of the public speaking on radio phone-in programmes questioned whether it was right that Stormont – which is responsible for the debacle – should investigate the matter.

Although the PAC has a long history of being a forum which is largely above party politics, yesterday concerns were expressed about the fact that the committee contains four DUP MLAs and three Sinn Fein MLAs, giving the Executive parties a majority if there are votes on key decisions such as whether to compel witnesses to attend.

Jonathan Bell himself led the demands for a public inquiry, stating that there needed to be a “judge-led public inquiry”.

And yesterday all parties except the DUP expressed varying degrees of support for the proposal.

The DUP argued that there should be an independent investigation into what had gone on and insisted that it had nothing to hide, but argued that the cost of a judge led inquiry meant that the already large bill for the RHI scandal would become even bigger.

Yesterday Alliance deputy leader and former minister Stephen Farry disagreed, saying: “We need a full, judge-led public inquiry that could be established in the next number of weeks.”

“At present, Arlene Foster’s moral authority to lead is gone.”

“She does not have the credibility to ask organisations to tighten their belts around public spending in the wake of this scandal.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood was similarly forceful. He said: “Parties from across the political spectrum have now rallied to sign the motion to exclude Arlene Foster for a period of six months while a full investigation can take place.

“It is our view that this should take the form of a robust and independent public inquiry.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said: “I suspect only the judicial inquiry that Mr Bell called for could get to the full truth.”

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt adopted a slightly different approach, arguing for the PAC hearings – which are being chaired by his colleague Robin Swann – to continue, at least in the short term before a public inquiry is deemed necessary.

He said: “It is up to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), chaired by Robin Swann MLA, to try to get to the bottom of it, otherwise an expensive public inquiry will be inevitable.”

Martin McGuinness appeared to not be calling for quite so significant an inquiry, referring last night to ”a fully independent investigation”.

However, Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald did call for a wider probe, demanding a “public inquiry as a matter of urgency”.

Last night former SDLP MLA John Dallat – the most experienced former PAC member, having served for 17 years on the key committee – questioned whether the committee could get to the truth of what has happened.

The now retired political veteran said: “The function of the PAC is to examine reports published by the Audit Office and make recommendations based on their inquiry...the PAC will publish 10 to 12 reports in a year dealing with a whole variety of government services. It is difficult to see it bogged down in one single report for months on end.”

He added: “Much of the [PAC] work will be conducted behind closed doors and there is always the risk of political interference.

“This is a public scandal and should be examined under the eye of the public who will pick up the bills for the next 20 years.”