The RHI inquiry must be set up right now – no ifs, no buts

Morning View
Morning View
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The revelation that the father-in-law of Simon Hamilton’s special adviser (spad) has two RHI boilers is nothing less than extraordinary.

John Robinson is one of the most prominent and influential people in the DUP and has been since he was their key press officer.

Mr Robinson makes clear that he never advised anyone to join the scheme or benefit from it.

He points out that they were installed and applied for before he was married in 2015.

Further, he says: “At no time did we discuss any aspect of the scheme nor was I aware of his application to the scheme.”

When Jonathan Bell mentioned Mr Robinson and another spad in the Assembly on Monday and said they had “extensive interests in the poultry industry”, the DUP said that Mr Robinson had no personal interest in the poultry industry and that the other spad had no interest whatsoever.

Nothing that has emerged contradicts that: Mr Robinson told the Press Association his two brothers are poultry farmers who “are not part of the scheme nor did they apply to the scheme”. He also says: “I was appointed as an adviser in the Department for the Economy in June 2016. I was not involved in any aspect of the RHI scheme prior to taking up the post.”

Mr Robinson is of course entirely innocent of any suggestion of improper influence unless proven otherwise.

However, it is plain that he must step aside – and at once – from overseeing any reform of the RHI shambles. This should have happened voluntarily weeks ago, to avoid any sense of a conflict of interest. How can he have been unaware of his unsuitedness to that role when he knew of his links to RHI? His judgement must now be in doubt.

The News Letter’s political editor Sam McBride has led our exhaustive coverage of this affair. We have put this story on our front page day after day, despite the fact that some unionists seemed to think that an emphatically unionist newspaper would overlook a scandal in departments run by the DUP.

But the culpability for the RHI blunder, and the horrifying waste of taxpayer funds, seems to be widely spread across offices and parties. For that very reason, in this very column we said early on that there had to be a rigorous inquiry that could compel documents and witnesses.

Now this must be set up without delay by the Secretary of State James Brokenshire – no ifs, no buts.

A central part of that inquiry must be the full examination of every single beneficiary of the RHI payments. All civil servants, officials and politicians who were in a position to influence the scheme must under oath be asked if they recommended that any individuals or businesses joined the scheme, and if so who and why.

Special attention must be paid to the late beneficiaries of the scheme, so that Jonathan Bell’s allegation that he was told to keep open the scheme can be carefully scrutinised.