Arlene Foster is to be called to give evidence to the RHI inquiry much earlier than previously planned, the retired judge chairing the investigation has said.
As the inquiry returned for its first hearing of 2018 yesterday, Sir Patrick Coghlin said that Mrs Foster and her former special adviser, Andrew Crawford, will give evidence at the end of phase two of the four-phase inquiry.
It has originally been intended that they would be among the last witnesses to appear. There has been no timeframe given for the former first minister’s appearance, but it is likely to be at least two months away.
There have been suggestions that Sinn Fein is prepared to drop its ‘red line’ that it would not go back into government with Mrs Foster as first minister while the inquiry was ongoing. If that is the case, the timetabling change could be politically significant, giving Sinn Fein some political cover to say that Mrs Foster had given evidence to the inquiry.
Sir Patrick said that those following the inquiry – whose loose indicative early timetable has been slipping over its first weeks of public hearings – would realise that its work was “a good deal more complex and more detailed than some might initially have thought” and therefore it would be sitting for longer each day in an attempt to hear more evidence.
He went on: “One further alteration in approach is in respect of the intended order of witnesses.
“Arising from the evidence that we have already heard, the panel has decided that it would be best to hear from more senior individuals with responsibility in DETI at an earlier stage than the inquiry had previously suggested.
“We will now aim to hear from witnesses such as the former permanent secretary, special adviser and minister towards the end of phase two in order to let them deal with phase one and phase two issues, and then, as with others, we will recall them as required to deal with phase three and four at a later date.”
Yesterday the inquiry heard from Stuart Stevenson, an official who had a limited role in setting up the scheme, and from Fiona Hepper, a senior official who reported directly to Mrs Foster about the scheme and who was subsequently promoted by the civil service.