The man who set up the RHI inquiry has said that he is disappointed that hearings will not begin until November.
In one of his final acts as Finance Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleor set up the inquiry in January after several weeks in which Sinn Féin opposed such an inquiry, preferring a more limited independent investigation conducted in private.
The party argued that a more limited investigation would be faster and would not involve the huge legal teams inherent to a public inquiry but eventually conceded that there would be no way other than a full public inquiry – due to Sinn Féin’s decision to pull down the assembly – to give such an investigation the ability to compel witnesses or take evidence on oath.
Some Sinn Féin members still believe that their party made a mistake by changing stance to call a public inquiry.
Earlier this year the News Letter revealed that Mr Ó Muilleor had failed to put any cost controls on the inquiry, even though it is investigating the absence of cost controls from the RHI scheme – the central failure of that project.
When the Sinn Féin finance minister set up the inquiry in January he told the assembly that it could have its report published within six months.
Stressing that it would be a matter for the judge, the minister told the assembly: “If pressed, I would think it appropriate for us to have a report six months after the inquiry starts, but that, in my view, is a matter for the chair.” However, it is now clear that Mr Ó Muilleoir’s estimate was wildly ambitious
In a statement yesterday, Mr Ó Muilleor said: “The delay is disappointing but it is also understandable given the vast amount of evidence that the inquiry team has already gathered and which must be thoroughly processed and prepared prior to the oral hearings taking place.
“It is important that happens because the need to get to the facts of the RHI scandal is just as prevalent now as it was when I instituted the inquiry.
“If we are to restore public confidence in the institutions of government then any negligence, incompetence, alleged corruption and abuse must be identified and those responsible held to account.”
Already, an indicative budget of more than £4 million has been set aside for the inquiry for the next year.