Inquiry will impact on entire Stormont edifice

Just four days into the RHI public inquiry, it is clear that this process will have profound implications '“ not just for Arlene Foster and for the DUP, but for the entire nature of government in Northern Ireland and whether devolution returns.

The inquiry has not yet heard in person from a single witness – and will not begin to do so until the end of this month at the earliest.

But much of the evidence opened, often in the form of incomplete but regulatory glimpses, in just four days has been politically explosive.

Many people assume that the real loser out of this will be Arlene Foster – the minister who set up the scheme without cost controls – and perhaps some of her senior DUP colleagues.

That may be so. Although we have yet to hear Mrs Foster’s evidence, it seems clear that even if the DUP leader argues (as she has done prior to now) that she was unaware of what her officials were doing as they designed the fatal scheme, that in itself will hardly reflect well on her, as the minister who spent seven years at the helm of what was then seen as the relatively straightforward Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).

However, on the basis of the opening four days, this inquiry could have far more extensive ramifications for the business of government in Northern Ireland.

In the short term, the allegations levelled at Mrs Foster and other senior DUP colleagues make it difficult for Sinn Féin to suddenly return to government with her.

Sinn Féin appeared to have all but dropped what was once its sole red line for going back into power-sharing government – that Mrs Foster stand aside for the duration of the inquiry – with the focus moving on to the Irish language and other matters.

That might have been sustainable for the party if it had done a deal in the period where the RHI scandal had died down. However, given that it was grassroots’ republican fury at the DUP in which the RHI scandal was the catalyst which pushed Martin McGuinness to pull Stormont down in January, it would be taking a gamble to re-enter government with Mrs Foster at this point, with the inquiry set to run for many months.

But in the longer term there is an even more fundamental potential outcome from this process.

This is an investigation which is shining a brighter light of transparency on the process of government in Northern Ireland than has ever happened in the 96-year history of the Province.

More than one million pages of documentation are in the hands of the inquiry; electronic devices have been secured and forensically examined; senior government figures have been compelled to produce text messages and archived civil service email accounts are being scoured for evidence.

Whatever the inquiry ultimately uncovers, and whatever its findings say about the responsibility for the ‘cash for ash’ debacle, the microscopic public examination of how public servants have done their jobs is almost certain to be withering, given that the civil service has already admitted a series of catastrophic failures.

A public inquiry which exposes astonishing incompetence among both political figures and officials poses a distinct risk to the Stormont edifice which has been seen by most people as the natural and most desirable form of government in Northern Ireland.

If this inquiry reveals the post-2007 Stormont to have been a system of government which was wildly, freewheelingly incompetent, then an institution which over recent years has increasingly come to be unloved by the public could find itself finally rejected by voters.

That could prompt public (and particularly unionist) support either for a return to a simpler, though less democratic, form of government in direct rule. Or it could lead to public demands for a sweeping renegotiation of the Agreement which underpins Stormont to make it more effective.