A public inquiry into the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme will not be able to complete its work within the six-month time frame, the chairman of the probe has said.
Retired appeal court judge Sir Patrick Coghlin said while he understood that politicians and the public were anxious for the inquiry to complete its work as soon as possible, he was unable, at this stage, to indicate how long it would take.
Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir instigated a public inquiry into the scandal when he was finance minister and said it would be appropriate for it to report within six months.
However, Sir Patrick said: “At present I can say that it will not be possible to report within six months.
“What I can assure you of is that our work will be done as efficiently as possible, and it will be done properly.”
He also ruled out any possibility of a preliminary report saying any preliminary conclusions would be based on incomplete information and might have to be changed.
“It would also have the potential to be unfair to those who may be involved before the inquiry,” he added.
Sinn Fein has repeatedly insisted that it will not support DUP leader Arlene Foster as Northern Ireland’s first minister until the inquiry reports.
This has added further complication to the attempts to restore powersharing at Stormont.
Mrs Foster has said she will not allow Sinn Fein to dictate who the DUP nominates to any post.
The RHI inquiry was set up after it emerged that the green energy scheme was approximately £490 million over budget.
The scheme was intended to increase the creation of heat from renewable sources.
However, businesses have been receiving more in subsidies than they are paying for renewable fuel and the scheme became very oversubscribed.
The fallout from the scandal resulted in the resignation of Sinn Fein’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, the collapse of Stormont’s institutions and the calling of a snap election on March 2.
Sir Patrick said the inquiry team has been gathering the relevant documentation surrounding the RHI Scheme.
“What is already apparent to us is that there is a huge amount of material from many quarters to be obtained and considered by the inquiry, and this must be done before we can start our public hearings.
“During this investigatory phase the inquiry will also be seeking answers from those it considers most likely to be able to assist with our work,” he added.
He said that he agreed to take on the role of chairman on the promise of complete independence.
Sir Patrick added: “This will be an inquisitorial process, designed to establish the facts. It is not an adversarial trial and has no power to determine any person’s criminal or civil liability.
“The RHI inquiry team is determined that it will get to the truth of the matters it is investigating, and will do so as quickly as it possibly can.”
In a statement on a new website providing information about the work of the inquiry, Sir Patrick said: “I appreciate that there is a huge appetite for information from the inquiry. There have already been a significant number of requests for information from the media.
“While I fully understand the level of public interest, this inquiry cannot and will not be in a position to provide a constant commentary on its work.
“When we have something to say, we will say it. In the meantime, it is vital that we press on with the task in hand.
“The inquiry will use this website to provide updates on our work, as well as issuing press releases to the media when it is appropriate to do so. I also appreciate, as does my team, that politicians and the public alike are anxious that this inquiry should complete its work and report as soon as possible.”
The statement goes on to say: “The inquiry will work as efficiently as it can, but we must carry out our investigation thoroughly and accurately. No one would thank us for producing a fast, but flawed, piece of work.
“I cannot, at this early stage of the investigation, give a date by which our work will be complete.”
“The RHI Inquiry team is determined that it will get to the truth of the matters it is investigating, and will do so as quickly as it possibly can.”
A preliminary public hearing is due to be held next month.