As damp squib report lands, Arlene sails on

Posted By: March 14, 2020

Brian Feeney. Irish News.Belfast.Saturday, March 14, 2020

A damp squib, a dull thud, as the three volumes and appendices of the long-overdue RHI report fell flat yesterday afternoon.

Excessively long, excessively prolix, never using one word when five were available, you wonder why it took a year to deal with responses from people criticized in the report. Criticized? No one got hit with so much as a damp facecloth.

Sincere, well-meaning Sir Patrick Coghlin urged the few who turned up to listen to his tedious delivery not to cherry-pick, though he would never use a colloquial phrase like that, but to read the report in its entirety. As if ….

It’s an exercise in the bleeding obvious. Anyone who wants to know what went wrong will read Sam McBride’s snappier investigation, completed in a fraction of the time and much more to the point. However, buried in the gigantic ocean of prose there are a few takeaways. First, Arlene Foster, despite not given full details about the scheme, should never have signed it. She said she believed her special adviser Dr. Andrew Crawford had read technical papers without ever checking that he had, or indeed had the expertise to read them.

Secondly, her department, DETI, (Enterprise, Trade, and Investment), was dysfunctional, peopled with civil servants who had no knowledge or expertise in energy, energy policy or business. There were too few of them, with too few resources, and the department switched them around apparently randomly, often replacing them with others who knew nothing about the RHI scheme they were to administer. DETI was supposed to review the scheme, said they would, acted as if they had, but never did, a ‘major failure which allowed expenditure to run out of control’ and furthermore, a failure for which there was ‘no adequate explanation’. There was no project management, no information handover, and no institutional memory.

Coghlin understandably seems to have been especially exercised by the role of special advisers (Spads). First, the fact that the DUP and Sinn Féin appointed them in flagrant breach of the legislation and informal guidance, ‘a complete failure to comply with the appointment code’. Secondly, that SF had people who in reality were Spads, but under legislation not entitled to be, and that fact that they wielded more ‘wide powers and influence’ than other official Spads. The report found that ‘the practices adopted by the DUP and SF in centralizing appointment, control and management of Spads effectively frustrated the purpose of the democratically enacted legislation’. Coghlin was particularly annoyed by Máirtín Ó Muilleoir consulting senior unelected SF figures before signing off what was supposed to be a ministerial decision. ‘Ministers decisions should be taken by ministers…and by no one else’, said Coghlin.

What will come of it all? Several of the major players have moved on. Arlene Foster, who signed off ‘a project too far’, and ran the dysfunctional department, sails on with the approval of the party who demanded her resignation. Amazingly Conor Murphy will announce on Monday an inquiry into misconduct by civil servants, not Spads. He must have read a different report. This one will gather dust.