Northern Ireland news

Senior civil servant imagines 'parallel world where imperfect RHI process is taking place'

Andrew McCormick was the most senior civil servant in charge of the now defunct Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry (DETI) - which had responsibility for the RHI scheme

A BLAZING row at an Indian restaurant, a DUP minister allegedly trying to break his special advisor's finger, and a late night in New York said to have left the same politician "unable to participate fully" in a key meeting - the RHI inquiry's new term promised drama worthy of a Netflix blockbuster.

Salacious details about the fractured relationship between Jonathan Bell and his `Spad' Timothy Cairns emerged with the publication of a witness statement by Andrew McCormick, one of Northern Ireland's top mandarins, to the judge-led inquiry into the renewable heating scheme.

If anyone knows where the bodies are buried, it is this career civil servant, who was the most senior official at the now defunct Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry (DETI) - which had responsibility for the RHI scheme - and latterly the Department for the Economy.

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Metaphorical popcorn in hand, journalists, policy wonks and Northern Ireland's army of political commentators gathered round their computer monitors at the appointed hour - 2pm - to watch the `inevitable' cascade of revelations on the inquiry's livestream.

Sadly for sub-editors in newsrooms across Belfast - but probably fortunately for democracy - judge-led inquiries are less House of Cards and more watching paint dry.

Dr McCormick's interrogation by inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin, his panel and senior counsel was rigorous to the point of torture - for viewers if not for the man answering the questions calmly and with an exquisite attention to detail.

Dressed in the conservative style befitting senior officialdom, a dark grey suit accented with a mid-blue shirt and darker tie with a recurring motif, he rested his right arm lightly on the table in front of him while listening attentively to each question, before moving both hands expressively during his extensive answers.

His manner was so open, and accepting of full responsibility, one felt perhaps a t-shirt bearing the proclamation `Nostra Culpa' would have been more appropriate.

"I can't disagree with you" was a phrase endlessly repeated during exchanges with an acerbic Sir Patrick, who seemed scarcely able to contain his scorn at how the scheme had been able to go rogue to the tune of £490 million of taxpayers' money.

Like most observers of this painstaking examination of an error-strewn process which culminated in the abject failure of the scheme, Dr McCormick admitted that the more he learns about it the less he knows.

A `Swiss cheese' metaphor, for the way in which small errors built up, was his best stab at an explanation for what had gone ultimately wrong.

"Systems failure is the sum of small failings," he offered, although acknowledging a key element in the breakdown was "failure to take on (board) direct warnings pointed out".

"I can imagine a parallel universe where an imperfect RHI process is taking place," he said.

Sir Patrick was unconvinced. It was difficult to blame systems failure, he observed sardonically, when "you had no system... (there was a) total absence of systems and that should have been picked up".

Dr McCormick returns to try to help the retired judge unpick the Gordian knot today - probably with a much smaller online audience.

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