Some RHI witnesses likely to face ‘significant criticism’, warns Sir Patrick Coghlin

Sir Patrick Coghlin, centre, was typically blunt in his closing comments on the final day of oral hearings
Sir Patrick Coghlin, centre, was typically blunt in his closing comments on the final day of oral hearings

The chairman of the public inquiry into the cash for ash scandal has warned some witnesses who have appeared before him that they “may be subject to quite significant criticism” in his final report.

On what is likely to have been the final day of public hearings at the RHI Inquiry, Sir Patrick Coghlin said today that although there are no further hearings planned, the inquiry “has a great deal more work to do”.

The retired Court of Appeal judge said that “most of that work will be internal and out of the public view”, as inquiry team continues to sift more than 1.2 million pages of documentary evidence and the transcripts of 111 days of oral evidence sessions.

Sir Patrick said that his team would continue to collect evidence and to publish it, in line with what has been the inquiry’s uniquely transparent approach to its work, whereby it has not only broadcast every minute of its hearings online but also made available hundreds of thousands of pages of written witness statements and documentary evidence on its website.

Sir Patrick said that the inquiry would “keep the public informed of any significant developments by way of press release or publication on the website”.

Sir Patrick said that the inquiry would “carefully assess what fairness requires in respect of those who may be ultimately criticised in the inquiry report”.

He said: “In light of the evidence we have received, it is of course likely that some individuals and/or bodies may be subject to quite significant criticism in the light of actions or omissions relating to the scheme.

“I welcome the recognition by participants this week that they have been treated fairly to date and I reiterate again, as the inquiry’s work moves into the next phase, my complete determination to ensure that no one is treated unfairly.”

He said that the weighing of evidence and writing of the final report will be “a significant undertaking and a painstaking process in light of the amount and complexity of the evidence and submissions that we have received”.

Sir Patrick said that he recognised there would be “considerable public interest” in when his report will be published but said enigmatically: “I’m afraid it’s simply not possible to give a date by which the inquiry report will be published.

“What we can say is that the report will be published as soon as reasonably possible.”

In personal closing comments about Parliament Buildings, Sir Patrick said with feeling: “It really has been both a privilege and a pleasure to hear the oral hearings in this beautiful building”.Praising the back room team which assisted the inquiry at Stormont, Sir Patrick added: “It’s when positive personal relationships like that take place that it does look as though productive work is possible and will be completed as soon as is practically possible.”

Today the inquiry heard closing submissions from lawyers from individual civil servants who have been granted legal representation at the inquiry because they had a significant role in the RHI scheme and therefore may face criticism in Sir Patrick’s report.

Barrister David Reid, on behalf of David Sterling, who is now head of the civil service, said that the organisation was now attempting to establish “a culture of challenge” whereby decisions were questioned more routinely.