RHI inquiry report highlights Stormont’s dysfunction but lacks bite

Posted By: March 14, 2020

Irish News Editorial.Belfast. Saturday, March 14, 2020

When the scandal surrounding the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme precipitated Stormont’s collapse in January 2017, it seemed to be a logical manifestation of the dysfunction long observed at the heart of the DUP and Sinn Féin administration.

As the public inquiry into the ‘cash for ash’ shambles progressed and evidence accumulated, the ineptitude of those involved – chiefly government ministers, their special advisers, and civil servants – became increasingly apparent.

After hearing from 63 witnesses over 114 days, as well as considering more than 1.2 million pages of evidence and almost 11,000 spreadsheets, the inquiry’s chairman, former judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, delivered his long-awaited report into the affair yesterday.

In summary, he has concluded that the affair was a cock-up rather than a conspiracy.

The inquiry undoubtedly performed a valuable role.

Among other things, it exposed the undue and excessive power held by unelected Spads [Special Advisors], ministers’ casual approach to detail and a Civil Service so ineffective and cowed that it had given up taking minutes of meetings for fear of embarrassing the DUP and Sinn Féin.

As a forensic account of what went wrong, the dismal vista painted in the report’s 650-plus pages should serve as a useful guide to how to prevent similar mishaps in the future.

Sir Patrick said there was “a multiplicity of errors and omissions” as well as “repeated missed opportunities to identify and correct, or seek to have others correct, the flaws in the scheme”.

There is a strong sense that the public will already have concluded as much, thanks to the evidence put in the public domain during the inquiry.

However, there will be disappointment that after an inquiry characterized by tenacity and fearlessness, Sir Patrick’s recommendations ultimately fall short of demanding the root and branch reform of the Civil Service that many believe is warranted.

Nor do any of the leading players in the RHI saga come in for especially harsh criticism. They are more likely to feel relieved than chastened.

The Stormont Executive and the Civil Service now have to demonstrate that they have indeed learned the lessons from the RHI debacle and that both are fit for purpose.

Time will tell how deeply committed the civil service is to change, but Sinn Féin’s decision yesterday to break from the Executive consensus on school closures and coronavirus suggests that political dysfunction still runs deep.