A potentially important witness who alerted others to looming RHI cost controls in 2015 left Northern Ireland about a year ago, the RHI Inquiry has been told.
Fergal Hegarty, business development manager at major renewable energy company Alternative Heat Ltd, is on the other side of the world in Australia and is not due to return to Northern Ireland until the end of this year or the start of next year.
The RHI Inquiry is due to be finished by that stage.
Yesterday a lawyer told Sir Patrick Coghlin’s inquiry that it had not even obtained a witness statement from Mr Hegarty.
He was first named publicly in relation to the RHI scandal in January 2017 by the News Letter after this newspaper received leaked emails showing that he had disseminated information which he received from civil servants to others in the renewables industry.
The emails from mid-summer 2015, the point where the scheme was running out of control, show that the industry had advance warning of looming cost controls – a factor which enabled more people to pile into the uncapped ‘cash for ash’ scheme.
Before publishing details of the contact, the News Letter repeatedly sought to contact Mr Hegarty by phone and email, but he did not respond.
Yesterday his situation arose in questions to his boss.
Connel McMullan, a director of Alternative Heat, yesterday gave evidence to the inquiry.
Senior counsel to the inquiry David Scoffield QC put it to him: “A lot of the emails that we’ve seen from your company involve Mr Hegarty; some of them involve you.
“Mr Hegarty would have been someone that the inquiry was interested in getting evidence from. Our understanding is that he has been out of the country for most of the last year, year and a half, travelling. Is that right?”
Mr McMullan said: “Yes, he’s on a sabbatical travelling around the world.”
Mr Scoffield asked: “Is he being paid by your company while he’s away?”
Mr McMullan said that he was not being paid and was “on leave”.
Mr Scoffield said: “On the basis that he has been away, we haven’t been able to get evidence from him directly, which is one of the reasons that I’m asking you about some of the emails that he’s sent. Was his sabbatical in any way related to this inquiry or the possibility that he might be asked to give evidence?”
Mr McMullan said: “Not in my understanding, no.”
When asked if he had discussed that with Mr Hegarty, Mr McMullan said: “Em. It’s not something that I’ve discussed with him, no. Em, he is aware of the inquiry and aware of the media stigma that runs with that but he is also well aware of his position and where we stand as a company so I don’t believe it would have any bearing on any decision he would make on that front.”
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin asked if Mr Hegarty’s expenses were being paid during his absence from Northern Ireland. Mr McMullan said: “No.”
He added that his job was being retained and “he is set to return [at the] end of this year, start of next year, I believe – that’s where he was hoping to be back so, yeah, he’s a year out basically...”
Mr Scoffield said that the inquiry did not even have a written statement from Mr Hegarty, despite attempting to contact him through his company.
In one of Mr Hegarty’s emails which the inquiry has compelled his company to release, he referred to “the fact that the poultry industry is exploiting the scheme”. Mr McMullan said that he did not have evidence of the scheme being abused in the poultry industry.
Mr McMullan said that his company “did supply every email that we had on the system that was in relation to him”.
Mr Scoffield said that it seemed that whatever information was being provided to Mr Hegarty by civil servants was being written down in emails and “sent out quite openly”.
Mr McMullan said that Mr Hegary was “very good at his job”.
Although his company had received advance notice through Mr Hegarty that RHI was to be made less lucrative in 2015, Mr McMullan said that he had not realised until “early February” 2016 that the scheme was to be shut completely.
However, in one of several questions which only Mr Hegarty can answer, the inquiry was told that an email from Mr Hegarty showed that the previous month he was aware that the scheme was likely to be closing and was asking civil servants to send him details of what would be happening.
Mr McMullan said he did not know how Mr Hegarty knew that the scheme was likely to be closing and then told the inquiry “I can find out”.
Sir Patrick asked him: “How can you find out?”
The witness said: “Well I can ask him; I can ask Fergal.”
Sir Patrick said: “So you’re in touch with him, are you?”
Mr McMullan said: “Aye, yeah. He carries his phone and he’s contactable, yeah.”