Larkin : Power to establish inquiry rests with ministers

Posted By: January 04, 2017

Gareth McKeown. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Office of the Attorney General has said it has no power to establish an inquiry into the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

As part of the Sinn Féin response to the scandal, the party has called for the involvement of the Attorney General to appoint an “international jurist” to lead an independent investigation.

On December 30, Health Minister Michelle O’Neill  said the RHI investigation “should be undertaken by an independent judicial figure from outside this jurisdiction and be appointed by the Attorney General”.

When pushed for comment yesterday a spokesman from the office of the Attorney General would not say whether it had been contacted by Sinn Féin in relation to the issue.

The spokesman simply said: “Under the Inquiries Act 2005, the power to establish an inquiry rests with ministers and not the Attorney General.”

According to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Inquiries Act “is designed to provide a framework under which future inquiries, set up by ministers into events that have caused or have the potential to cause public concern, can operate effectively to deliver valuable and practicable recommendations in the reasonable time and at a reasonable cost”.

It is understood that the only people that can call an inquiry into RHI are the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire or the Stormont minister in charge of the department under scrutiny.

The Attorney General’s office would not be drawn on whether John Larkin would cooperate with ministers to help appoint an “international jurist” if requested to do so.

Former Justice Minister David Ford said he did not know of any procedure by which the Attorney General would be involved in appointing a judge.

“I also know no procedure by which a full judicial inquiry, open and with powers of compulsion could be led by anyone other than a judge from this jurisdiction,” he said.

“This appears to be further clouding of the issue by Sinn Féin, and I believe that the proposals put forward by Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance in December are the only reasonable way forward,” the Alliance MLA added.

In reiterating her party’s call for an independent judge-led inquiry Alliance leader, Naomi Long added that the Attorney General, who is appointed by the Executive Office, cannot appoint judges, who are senior to him.

“The correct mechanism would be for the Lord Chief Justice to advise the first minister and deputy first minister on which judge to appoint,” she said.

The Attorney General John Larkin is the chief legal adviser to the government and “advises on the most important and complex legal matters facing the executive.”

He has the power to lead litigation arising in matters on which the office has provided advice on behalf of the executive.

The Attorney General is also what is known as the “guardian of the rule of law” and as such “has a responsibility to represent the public interest and ensure that all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the state itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with fundamental human rights”.