The chairman of a public inquiry into a botched green energy scheme that triggered the collapse of powersharing in Northern Ireland has vowed to conduct an objective and transparent investigation.
Retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin told the opening of the renewable heat incentive (RHI) probe that evidence would be considered in a measured and independent manner.
He told the hearing at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, that the inquiry team has already examined one million pieces of documentary evidence.
The probe will investigate the design and operation of the ill-fated RHI scheme, an eco-friendly state subsidy initiative that left the Stormont administration facing a potential £700 million overspend bill.
Tory ally and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster’s role in the RHI scheme was at the heart of the row that brought down the Sinn Fein/DUP coalition government in Belfast.
Mrs Foster is expected to give evidence to the inquiry in the new year.
Delivering a brief statement at the start of the first oral evidence session, Sir Patrick said: “This inquiry was established in the wake of a media and political turmoil during which strongly worded allegations and repudiations were exchanged.
“The inquiry was set up to provide a measured, objective, independent and publicly transparent investigation of the facts in accordance with the terms of the reference and that is what this inquiry shall seek to do.”
The chair then passed over to the lead barrister for the inquiry to commence an opening statement that is expected to last for most of this week.
David Scoffield QC noted there was “precious little” in the scope of the inquiry that was “uncontentious”.
Mr Scoffield’s statement will address the context in which the inquiry was established; its terms of reference; the way in which it has conducted its work since it was established and the themes which have emerged from the evidence gathered so far.
Mrs Foster’s group of 10 pro-Brexit DUP MPs is propping up the minority Conservative government on key votes at Westminster through a confidence and supply agreement.
She had a central role in establishing the RHI scheme during her time as Stormont economy minister.
The DUP leader and former first minister has insisted she acted correctly throughout.
In the wake of the RHI furore, Sinn Fein repeatedly stated its unwillingness to return to devolved coalition government at Stormont with Mrs Foster as first minister until her actions were examined by the inquiry.
That demand has somewhat faded into the background as the powersharing impasse has been overtaken by a row over the Irish language.
The RHI was established to incentivise businesses to shift to renewable energy sources by offering a proportion of the costs to run eco-friendly boilers.
But in Northern Ireland the subsidy tariffs were set too high and without a cap, so it ended up paying out significantly more than the price of fuel.
This effectively enabled some applicants to “burn to earn”, getting free heat and making a profit as they did so.
Mrs Foster’s refusal to accede to Sinn Fein’s demand that she step aside as first minister pending the outcome of an inquiry prompted the late Martin McGuinness to resign as Sinn Fein deputy first minister in January, forcing the collapse of powersharing.
While the inquiry will broadly examine the RHI scheme on a chronological basis, it will also work up the line of responsibility, with junior ranking civil servants called to give evidence first and permanent secretaries and ministers due at the end of the hearings.
The probe has served more than 470 notices compelling the production of evidence.
There are three core participants: Stormont’s Department of the Economy, the Department of Finance, and Ofgem, which administered the scheme.
The inquiry will run on a three-week cycle comprising two weeks of oral hearings and a week of analytical and preparatory work.
After Mr Scoffield’s opening statement, legal counsel representing the core participants will deliver their own opening statements.
Mr Scoffield said the inquiry would not deliberate on whether Mr McGuinness’s resignation was justified.
But he added: “It is undoubtedly part of the RHI story, that concern about what happened with this scheme reached such fever pitch that it struck at the very heart of our democratic institutions.”
The lawyer said the RHI scheme had caught the public imagination in part due to allegations of “incompetence, corruption and improper patronage”.
Mr Scoffield added: “The notion that money might be going up in smoke which could otherwise pay for doctors, nurses, teachers, policemen and so on has been anathema to many in the public.”
The barrister made clear it was not the inquiry’s function to determine civil or criminality liability.
He said the probe would also not be assessing whether all the individual RHI applicants were using it legitimately.
Mr Scoffield also referred to the explosive TV interview last December with former DUP economy minister Jonathan Bell who broke cover to level a series of allegations against Mrs Foster and DUP party advisers.
The lawyer said it was “probably unprecedented” in contemporary Northern Ireland politics for a former minister to turn on party colleagues in such a way.
He revealed the inquiry has secured texts and emails that were exchanged among politicians and officials in the wake of Mr Bell’s interview.
Mr Scoffield said the inquiry was not concerned with the “political drama and theatre” of the episode but with the claims made by Mr Bell.
The RHI scheme was closed to new applicants when the scale of the overspend bill emerged, however Mr Bell alleged DUP advisers delayed this action.
The party advisers have denied wrongdoing.
After the eventual closure, Stormont ministers then took action to cut the tariffs they had pledged to pay in long-term contracts, a move currently being challenged by RHI boiler owners in the courts.
Mr Scoffield said many had been left “aggrieved” by the scheme, noting there were those in the renewables sector who felt the government “broke faith”.
He added: “It is hard to find a taxpayer in Northern Ireland who does not have questions to ask about how a scheme intended to do so much good turned out to have an unplanned bill of such proportions as to threaten other public spending priorities, apparently well into the future.”