Sam McBride: Voice of a public livid over RHI has been heard loudly within Stormont

Anyone who doubts the power of the voter should examine what has happened over the last month.

Saturday, 7th January 2017, 7:50 am
Updated Monday, 9th January 2017, 1:03 pm
The RHI fiasco really came to the public's notice in early December

It was on December 6 that the scale of the RHI fiasco was seared into the public consciousness by Conor Spackman’s brilliant BBC Spotlight investigation.

Since then there have been a deluge of revelations which paint an even darker picture of what went on and which raise fundamental questions about the ability of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, the actions of their political masters and the integrity of the entire Stormont edifice.

The scandal has prompted a public outcry on a scale that is without precedent in Northern Ireland during my decade in journalism.

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But it is now very clear that the highest levels of government in Northern Ireland – both ministerially and in the civil service – knew about the catastrophic scale of the losses incurred on the RHI scheme more than a year ago.

In July, the Audit Office published a report which set out many of the grisliest details, including the central problem – that people were incentivised to leave their boilers running around the clock.

And yet, as highlighted by BBC business correspondent Julian O’Neill, it was only after the Spotlight programme that ministers pledged to halve the losses on RHI.

Then, as the public fury intensified, this week the First Minister pledged to bring forward a scheme which would mean slashing payments to a level that there will be no overspend beyond the money which Westminster is prepared to put into the RHI scheme.

The shift from an initially sluggish response to fevered attempts to claw back as much public money as possible has been a salutary lesson in how shrewd politicians respect – and fear – the ballot box.

In his News Letter article this week, former DUP MLA David McIlveen said that the DUP is a party which is “obsessed with elections”. A party veteran this week recalled how Peter Robinson drummed into the party that it only had power because the people gave them that power.

Although there can be a strategic deficit in any party which simply focuses its work around the next election, there is also a major democratic positive to such an approach – the party realises that its voters’ views cannot be ignored if it is to retain their electoral support.

When in a crisis, the DUP often adopts a bullish attitude – and frequently attacks the media, the mediator between most voters and politicians. But behind the rhetoric, the last month has shown that the DUP and Sinn Fein have both been listening to their supporters and gradually moving their position to move closer to that of the public.

One aspect of this scandal which has yet to be fully explored is the role of those who never have to face voters – the civil servants.

While ministers cannot oversee every action of their officials, it is they who have to demonstrate to the public that if their staff have been responsible for gross failure then the consequences will not be solely for the minister.

That angle of the forthcoming inquiry – particularly if it involves public evidence sessions – could be one of the most revealing.