Retired judge to head inquiry into ‘cash for ash’ scheme

Sir Patrick Coghlin will not publish interim findings before elections in North

Retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin will chair  inquiry into the RHI scheme. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin will chair inquiry into the RHI scheme. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin is to chair a public inquiry into the so-called “cash for ash” scheme.

Northern Ireland Minister for Finance Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, of Sinn Féin, told the Northern Assembly that the North’s Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, had nominated retired lord justice of appeal Sir Patrick to head the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

The scheme could result in an overspend of up to £490 million (€570 million) by 2036.

“I am very pleased Sir Patrick has agreed to lead the inquiry and I know that he will be unflinching in his pursuit of the truth and scrupulous in his analysis of the evidence,” said Mr Ó Muilleoir.

The judge will not be publishing interim findings, as some Assembly members had hoped, ahead of the March 2nd Assembly elections which were triggered as a result of the RHI crisis.

Mr Ó Muilleoir said the inquiry would be in public and hopefully televised at a venue yet to be decided, but that Sir Patrick had decided there would be no public hearings before the election.

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“Rest assured every stone will be turned and there will be no dark corners where the light won’t shine,” said Mr Ó Muilleoir on the last sitting day of the Assembly. It formally dissolves tomorrow.

The inquiry was welcomed by the Northern parties, including the DUP.

Expeditious

Mr Ó Muilleoir said the inquiry’s work will begin on Wednesday of next week, February 1st. It was hoped, he added, that the judge would “report as expeditiously as possible”, but the timing of the report would be a matter solely for Sir Patrick.

The Minister suggested that six months might be a reasonable period in which to expect publication.

Mr Ó Muilleoir said the independent investigation would have the powers to compel witnesses and evidence.

“I pledge that as Minister I will ensure the inquiry is free of ministerial control or interference,” he added.

Sir Patrick will be supported by two panel members who have yet to be appointed and, as needed, assessors with relevant expertise from outside Northern Ireland.

Key areas Sir Patrick will investigate will be the development and roll-out of the scheme by the then department of enterprise, trade and investment, under minister Arlene Foster; the signing-off of the scheme by the then department of finance; delays in implementing cost-control measures before November 2015, which allowed a spike in the number of applicants that autumn; and the closure of the scheme in February last year.

Mr Ó Muilleoir said the inquiry would assist in “rebuilding the shattered public confidence in the institutions”.

Banned

Meanwhile, a Belfast High Court interim judgment has put in doubt whether information can be released today about who availed of the scheme. Yesterday, Mr Justice Deeny temporarily banned publication of the names of more than 300 boiler owners who benefited under the RHI scheme.

Minister for the Economy Simon Hamilton, of the DUP, was set to reveal a full or partial list of those on the scheme. But, as a group of boiler operators launched a legal challenge to the plans, Mr Justice Deeny imposed an interim injunction to stop any members’ personal details being disclosed.

His order will remain in place for up to a week and covers only those in the Renewable Heat Association of Northern Ireland.

In all, about 2,000 farmers and businesses availed of the scheme, in which, for every £1 invested, users received £1.60.