Leading article

Stormont return closely linked to RHI report

THE DUP leader Arlene Foster, addressing her party’s spring conference in Omagh at the weekend, sent out her familiar message that four of the five main parties at Stormont want to see the restoration of devolution and only Sinn Féin is blocking the path to progress.

If Mrs Foster sticks to this position and pays no attention to what the other parties are actually saying, there is every prospect that the assembly will remain suspended for an indefinite period.

All the leading groups want to see the return of the power-sharing administration and it needs to be stressed that each of them must take a portion of the blame for its collapse just over two years ago.

However, the responsibility for the impasse is not shared equally and there is a clear consensus outside the DUP that serious issues over that party’s overall performance in government, and in particular its association with serious financial malpractice, must be addressed before normal business gets under way again at Parliament Buildings.

Widespread alarm was caused by the DUP’s involvement in the Red Sky scandal, the National Asset Management Agency investigation which is still unresolved moved matters to an entirely different level and the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) public inquiry comprehensively exposed the unacceptable attitudes and behaviour of figures across the ranks of the party.

Mrs Foster memorably told the tribunal chair, Sir Patrick Coghlin, that as DUP leader she was accountable but not responsible for the actions of her party colleagues, and she maintained on Saturday that there were “lessons for all of us” from the RHI hearings

It is difficult to see how she can retain her post if Sir Patrick takes a less benign view of the reasons for the £500 million fiasco when he delivers his verdict in the coming months, and the activities of the DUP’s now notorious  special advisers (Spads) are an equally pressing question.

Mrs Foster’s comments on accountability were directly linked to her former Spad Andrew Crawford after the tribunal heard evidence that he had sent confidential government documents to family members who were RHI claimannts, and she said he had also failed to notify her about indications that the RHI scheme was being comprehensively abused.

Mr Crawford, who has always denied wrongdoing, resigned in January 2017 after a senior civil servant alleged he exerted influence over the delays in curbing the RHI scheme’s overgenerous tariffs but information about his activities is still emerging.

Just last month we reported how he instructed Stormont press officers not to respond to Irish News queries about his role in vetting freedom of information requests in 2016 after he previously blocked officials from releasing similar responses – including one exposing a DUP minister embroiled in a bonfire controversy.

Mr Crawford is believed to have returned to the DUP’s staff in a vital area as a Brexit adviser but the party has yet to provide a response to our requests for clarification about his status and his freedom of information interventions.

The conclusions of Sir Patrick Coghlin are eagerly awaited but, before they are delivered, the DUP still has opportunities to contribute to the climate in which a political breakthough can become possible.

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