RHI scandal is test for all sides

BBC Spotlight NI showed last night that a relatively simple decision not to pursue the same renewable heating incentive programme as Great Britain led to the scheme becoming a scarily expensive farce. This was known in 2013 and reported to the Minister responsible, but no action was taken and the farce continued, knocking at least £20 million off devolved public spending for each of the next 20 years.

This is unbelievable ineptitude and it comes at a huge cost to all of us – a tenner each every year for the next generation, to be precise. The sort of money which would have delivered the entirely of the A6 upgrade, York Street Interchange, Belfast Rapid Transit and the new Omagh Hospital with change to spare.

Quite obviously the Minister responsible should never set foot in a Ministerial car again. Yet this is a problem, of course, because the Minister responsible was none other than Arlene Foster. Remember when it was so vital that she should be First Minister?

Plainly she should resign. Plainly she won’t. And the test is thus deferred elsewhere, perhaps most obviously to Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin is, of course, failing badly at this. It allowed a Unionist Minister into Justice who has proven to be adept only at hiding reports; it allowed into office an Attorney General who only yesterday went to London to make a case on Brexit indistinguishable from the DUP’s; and now it is in bed with a First Minister who has just tossed away upwards of £400m through sheer incompetence. What is it getting out of all of this?

It is a test for the Opposition too. What they should do is recall the Assembly; demand an ad hoc committee to investigate fully; and carefully communicate details of the issue and its implications to the public, noting where the buck stops. Sadly, what they will probably do is rant and rave for 48 hours before the media move on to the next story.

It is also a test for the NI Civil Service, in which the public is rapidly losing confidence drastically. Alarmingly, both of the main candidates for next Head of the Civil Service are directly implicated in this scandal and were mentioned directly on Spotlight. It goes without saying that in fact outright dismissals of everyone at the top should follow for such gross negligence, including retrospectively for those now living off final salary pensions at our expense having caused us such additional expense. There should certainly be no suggestion of promotion for anyone anywhere near this.

However, there are also vast issues here of the basic work culture of an organisation which was so openly uncaring about certain pots of taxpayers’ money, and which for all its internal paper trails misses real risk when it is occurring in the real world even when it is reported. There is something culturally wrong when officials are so overt about not being bothered about public money provided it comes from the Treasury, for example. In fact, it is quite obvious that the next Head of the Civil Service should not come from within it at all – another reason this is an issue for Sinn Féin, as it holds the relevant Ministry.

It is perhaps the worst thing in all of this that none of this will actually happen – people (Ministers and civil servants) who fundamentally failed to do the job they are paid to do by the public, thus incurring further financial penalties on that public, will remain in post and go on to generous retirement settlements and even perhaps promotions. That is the ultimate scandal here. No wonder people are beginning to reject the system altogether.

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