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RHI Inquiry finds no evidence of corruption but criticises behaviour of ministers and special advisers

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The Report of the Independent Public Inquiry into the Non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Scheme was launched at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast, today by the Inquiry Chairman, Sir Patrick Coghlin.

The Report contains three volumes, running to 56 chapters and covering 656 pages. It makes 44 recommendations following 319 findings which are critical of the actions, or inactions, of a significant number of people and organisations in respect of the scheme.

The Inquiry was established by the then Minister of Finance, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir to investigate the scheme. The scheme was set up in November 2012 to provide financial incentives for businesses in Northern Ireland to move away from using non-renewable sources of energy. It was suspended in February 2016 and has not been re-opened to further applications.

Amid heightening political controversy and public concern over the scheme’s potential financial losses, the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in January 2017.

The Inquiry investigated the original design and implementation of the RHI scheme; its operation; the circumstances relating to the imposition of cost controls in late 2015, as well as the circumstances relating to the suspension of the scheme to new applicants in early 2016.

The scheme was run by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), which later became the Department for the Economy (DfE).

A total of 63 witnesses gave oral evidence to the Inquiry which sat for 114 days.

The Inquiry’s forensic investigative process considered and processed more than 1.2 million pages of evidence as well as almost 11,000 spreadsheets.

In the Report, the Inquiry said the RHI scheme was a “project too far” and while motivated by the laudable aim of encouraging the use of renewables rather than fossil fuels in heat production, the Northern Ireland stand-alone scheme should never have been adopted.

The Report continued:

“The NI RHI scheme was novel, technically complex and potentially volatile, especially because of its demand-led nature and the wide range of variables – such as fluctuating fuel costs – which could affect its operation.

These features together made the scheme highly risky, yet the risks were not sufficiently understood by all those who should have understood them within the Northern Ireland Government, either at the outset or any time during the life of the scheme.

Without the necessary resources and capability, DETI should never have embarked on such a novel and complicated, demand-led scheme.”

It added:

“Responsibility for what went wrong lay not just with one individual or group, but with a broad range of persons and organisations involved, across a variety of areas relating to the design, approval, management and administration of the NI RHI scheme throughout its life.

Across those different areas, there was a multiplicity of errors and omissions. There were repeated missed opportunities to identify and correct, or seek to have others correct, the flaws in the scheme.

The sad reality is that, in addition to a significant number of individual shortcomings, the very governance, management and communication systems, which in these circumstances should have provided early warning of impending problems and fail-safes against such problems, proved inadequate.”

The Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland, Mr Kieran Donnelly has agreed to monitor and, as necessary, pursue the effective implementation of the Inquiry’s recommendations.

The Report said it was the Inquiry’s hope that if the recommendations are followed, both in letter and spirit, it will be much more difficult for the types of general problems discovered in respect of the NI RHI scheme to re-occur.

The Report added:

“Hopefully that will, in turn, lead to a better functioning Northern Ireland Civil Service, and provide for a much healthier devolved administration in Northern Ireland.

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