Sam McBride: An inquiry not just into RHI, but into the entire Stormont system

Press Eye Belfast - Northern Ireland 12th January 2017

General view of Stormont in east Belfast as meetings continue over the crisis at the Assembly caused by the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.


Picture by Jonathan Porter/Press Eye
Press Eye Belfast - Northern Ireland 12th January 2017 General view of Stormont in east Belfast as meetings continue over the crisis at the Assembly caused by the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. Picture by Jonathan Porter/Press Eye

Ostensibly, the inquiry into the RHI scandal is an investigation of a hugely embarrassing episode but one which is limited to just one area of government.

However, it is becoming clearer that – probably unintentionally – this public inquiry has the potential to turn into something far grander and more serious: a public examination of much of the Northern Ireland governing class.

This experience will certainly be deeply uncomfortable for the DUP in general, and in particular for Arlene Foster and some of the party’s current or former Spads.

But unless evidence of corruption emerges (and there has been none to date), those who are hoping that this will simply be a relentless public flogging of the DUP leader may be somewhat disappointed.

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin’s revelation yesterday about the scale of his evidence-gathering hints at where much of the scrutiny is likely to be – the vast bulk of the hundreds of thousands of pages of documentation which he is amassing is almost certain to be from the civil service, an institution which generates voluminous electronic and paper documentation.

The key documentation will be held electronically on what is known as the TRIM records management system which spans all Stormont departments and is meant to provide an audit trail so that documents cannot be tampered with.

Civil service information which has emerged over recent months makes clear that there was serious incompetency by officials. That does not absolve Mrs Foster (or Jonathan Bell) who were meant to be ensuring that their officials were kept in check.

But if this inquiry shows in minute detail just how incompetent the entire Stormont system has been (albeit, perhaps significantly, in the era prior to a Stormont opposition) it will be particularly damaging to the entire devolution project at a time when there is already an apparent growing public willingness to countenance a return to direct rule.

The inquiry is likely to show patterns of work and behaviour which are common across the civil service (the key RHI officials are now scattered around several departments), Spads (the Spads involved have been at multiple departments) and ministers (Mrs Foster has until now been widely regarded as one of the better ministers).

It was always puzzling to observe Sinn Fein’s deep reticence about calling a full public inquiry – even when that was leading to stinging criticism of the party – and desire for a more limited and possibly behind-closed-doors probe until its U-turn in mid-January.

We will not know until the hearings are well under way, but it may be that some in Sinn Fein are concerned that the inquiry is going to uncover just how incompetent the entire Stormont system has been – on its watch.

And, with Máirtín Ó Muilleoir not having put any time or cost limit on the inquiry it can run for as long as Sir Patrick feels is necessary.