RHI scandal: Quietly explosive testimony ‘shows need for inquiry’

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

The “devastating” evidence about the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme which was laid before MLAs by a top civil servant has sparked yet more calls for the debacle to be probed properly and in full.

MLAs said Dr Andrew McCormick’s manner when he appeared before Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Wednesday was “calm” and “quiet” – but that what he had to say will fuel the “disgust” felt by many about the scandal.

MLAs during the sitting of the Public Accounts Committee at Stormont on Wednesday

MLAs during the sitting of the Public Accounts Committee at Stormont on Wednesday

The leader of the SDLP, Colum Eastwood, and TUV leader Jim Allister, both renewed their calls for an official public inquiry following his evidence.

Mr Allister, MLA for North Antrim, said of Dr McCormick’s appearance: “His evidence was delivered in a calm, matter-of-fact fashion but was nonetheless explosive.”

When it comes to why the number of RHI applications rose so sharply in 2015, Mr Allister said that “the suggestion that information from inside the department contributed to the spike is particularly concerning”.

“It is obvious that senior figures in the DUP – not least the leader Arlene Foster – have major questions to answer,” said Mr Allister.

“The continual drip of revelations about RHI have disgusted the people of Northern Ireland and rocked confidence in the DUP and devolution.

“It is now more clear than ever that we need to have a full public inquiry into this whole affair.”

Mr Eastwood, MLA for Foyle, said that allegations from a senior civil servant that ‘insider information’ was linked to the catastrophic RHI overspend is a signal of corruption that must be rooted out of government.

The SDLP leader also said that allegations that a DUP special advisor exerted pressure on the Department of Enterprise to delay the closure of the scheme must form part of a public inquiry.

Mr Eastwood described Dr McCormick as “one of the most respected senior civil servants in government”.

He said: “Dr McCormick delivered his evidence to the committee in a quiet manner but his audible honesty will prove devastating for the DUP.

“Much of Dr McCormick’s evidence either confirmed or added to the suspicions which have surrounded this scheme from the very beginning.”

He said that the suggestion a DUP special advisor had attempted to delay the closure of the scheme ahead of the spike in applications in 2015 means the party’s “attempt to feign ignorance is dead in the water”, adding: “This must form part of a full public inquiry into this matter.

“Only a fully empowered public inquiry capable of compelling papers and people to secure the truth of this matter can begin to restore the shattered public confidence.”

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long meanwhile said that it was “perfectly natural for public suspicions after more RHI revelations” – including the admission by DUP special advisor (and former chief press officer) John Robinson, that his father-in-law had applied to the scheme in August 2015.

He has said that the application was made before he (John Robinson) had got married, and that neither he nor his wife had any direct involvement with his father-in-law’s poultry business or advised anyone to join RHI, or benefited from it himself.

Mrs Long said: “This is yet more of a drip-feed of information that appears to have become a regular feature of the RHI scandal.

“That approach is incredibly corrosive on public confidence and it is understandable why people have suspicions following it.”

Though the statement did not mention a need for a public inquiry, Alliance have backed that stance recently.

Sinn Fein, meanwhile, issued a statement from East Antrim MLA Oliver McMullan, Closely echoing others before him, he said the “constant drip-feed of allegations and revelations highlights the need for full accountability and transparency”.

However, Sinn Fein have been left alone in recent weeks in the refusal to back a full public inquiry into the scheme.

As a measure of how baffling the details of the scheme can be at times, Mr McMullan said the scheme “could cost the public purse up to £500m”.

His own colleague, Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir, had recently estimated the figure could be as high as £600m over the 20-year life of the scheme, while the Department for the Economy has estimated it to be a possible £490m.