‘RHI is a bleak page in the history of devolution,’ says SDLP leader

Colum Eastwood calls for immediate reform of the processes of government

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin and Dame Una O’Brien, statutory inquiry panel member, and Dr Keith MacLean, technical assessor to the inquiry, present their findings in Parliament Buildings on Friday. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin and Dame Una O’Brien, statutory inquiry panel member, and Dr Keith MacLean, technical assessor to the inquiry, present their findings in Parliament Buildings on Friday. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker

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Arlene Foster has again apologised for her failings over the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme but has insisted she has no cause to consider her position as DUP leader and First Minister.

The chairman of the inquiry, Sir Patrick Coghlin, in his report was critical of Ms Foster, who previously admitted she had not read the legislation relating to the scheme, but said she had been given incorrect information about the scheme by her officials when she was minister at the Department of Enterprise, Trade Investment (DETI).

The scheme was introduced in 2012 when she was DETI minister.

Sir Patrick said of Ms Foster, “While the Minister should not have been presented with a document which lacked all the necessary cost information, she equally should not have signed it in those circumstances.”

In response Ms Foster recalled her 2018 DUP conference speech where she “indicated that the best of intentions do not make us immune from mistakes and misjudgments”.

“Today I again apologise for my failings in the implementation of the renewable heat incentive scheme,” she said.

She did not believe the findings should cause her to reflect on her position. “No, it doesn’t make myself reflect,” she said.

“As I look back over the events of the last number of years and with the benefit of that hindsight, there are many things that could and should have been handled in a very different way. However, the unalterable truth is that none of us can change or relive that which has already happened but we can take the experience and use it to shape the road ahead,” Ms Foster said.

The Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that “scandals like the DUP’s RHI fiasco must never happen again”.

While critical of the DUP she indicated that the report was unlikely to threaten the recently restored Northern Executive and Assembly. “Sinn Féin is committed to the political institutions, but they must operate differently from what went before, with a new kind of politics, which is progressive, respectful and has integrity,” she said.

“We need open government where decisions are properly scrutinised day and daily and with no hiding place for any risk of malpractice or cronyism. This is what Sinn Féin is committed to,” added Ms O’Neill.

Bleak page

The SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, said “RHI is a bleak page in the history of devolution” and “it’s our job now to ensure it isn’t repeated”.

He added, “I have said previously that the last Executive was the most secretive in the history of devolved government. This inquiry report presents an urgent case for immediate reform of the processes of government. The recommendations that Patrick Coghlin has made must be the basis of a new approach to government and a new approach by government to the public.”

Ulster Unionist Party leader Steven Aiken said the report’s “headline findings are a sad indictment, not only on the inability of an Executive to run a heating scheme, but of the culture that permeated during the last decade of DUP-Sinn Féin rule”.

Alliance MLA Andrew Muir said “this report must act as a watershed moment for those who have been criticised directly, as well as the wider culture and system of governance, which enabled their actions and inactions”.

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said “by spreading the blame widely, some may have escaped the sharper criticism that they deserved” in the report.

“Yet, the question remains – will there be consequences for anyone? In any other jurisdiction it is hard to imagine that heads would not roll. But here, even the concept that the buck stops with the Minister when a department spectacularly fails, as DETI did, has become so muted that a preemptive apology seems to do.”