RHI Inquiry - Whose hands were clean on this Friday 13th

Journalists examine the report. Picture by Deric Henderson (on social media)
Journalists examine the report. Picture by Deric Henderson (on social media)

`CATCH IT, BIN IT, KILL IT' - not the exhortations of a DUP Spad to minions on how to deal with a recalcitrant minister, but a new notice sellotaped to a marble plinth at the entrance to Stormont's Great Hall due to the grim advance of Covid-19.

The only other sign of the feared spread of Coronavirus inside the shiny halls was a rather lonely-looking bottle of hand sanitiser sitting suggestively on the counter at reception.

This Friday 13, as Sir Patrick Coghlin prepared to finally release his findings on the botched RHI scheme, the question hanging in the air was who would emerge from his 656-page report with their hands clean.

Proof that the scandal has not entirely faded from public consciousness came from the taxi driver on the way to Parliament Buildings, for whom it was the third hot topic of conversation, behind bus lanes and the global pandemic.

It was always unlikely that his view "if it was you or me, we'd be in Maghaberry" was going to be echoed by the retired high court judge, but dozens of journalists from across Ireland and the UK filed into the ornate Senate Room at noon to find out.

With black pillars holding up the soaring ceilings, ornate if faded fabric wallpaper and worn velvet curtains, it is an impressive room which harks back to better days.

Not the interminable 114 days of hearings which finally ended on December 14 2018, but before that. Long, long, long before that.

Had Sir Patrick popped his head round the door he would have scarcely recognised the place. Gone was the modern desk and office chairs where he and fellow panellists had given so much of their best years, and restored was the room's original ornate gilt-edged wooden throne (the upholstery doesn't match the curtains, before you ask, but does the large central table) complete with the the royal coat-of-arms and two tiny mini thrones at either side.

One can see why he chose not to retain that during the independent public inquiry.

Reporters had just two hours to scour the three-volume report (or more realistically its 70-page summary) before it was formally released by the chairman at 2pm in the Long Gallery.

Some remained in the chamber, flipping through pages and tapping furiously on laptops. Others retreated to windowless subterranean rooms, some hastily requisitioned with the aid of the TV channel name scrawled with black marker on an A4 sheet and stuck to the door, others to the increasingly cramped press room.

Colleagues murmured to each other, but for the most part the only sound from this most voluble of professions was the scratch of biros on paper.

The `dead cat' thrown on the table just an hour earlier by Sinn Féin deputy minister Michelle O'Neill in the form of a public divergence from her DUP counterpart Arlene Foster over school closures had sparked speculation that there might be dramatic revelations in the report the two main parties wanted to distract from.

That - and criticism about the choice of a Friday afternoon - were views given short shrift by Sir Patrick when he introduced his report on the first floor, insisting "public speculation... that the timing of this launch has been in some way contrived in order to 'bury bad news' at the start of a holiday weekend" was "wrong".

His request for everyone to read all 56 chapters is possibly less unlikely than it was before the populace was facing the prospect of up to three months locked in their own homes.

Sir Patrick introduced the report with a dramatic review of the circumstances which led to the commissioning of the inquiry, from the initial BBC Spotlight investigation to the "series of television interviews shortly before Christmas 2016" by broadcaster Stephen Nolan with first with former Deti minister Jonathan Bell and then with Arlene Foster who held the pivotal Deti and Finance portfolios before becoming First Minister.

Such was the chutzpah of his retelling of those pivotal moments that it seems likely a full re-enactment of the walnut-hued wunderkind's bravura TV performance was only ruled out at the last minute on the basis that it truly had been an unrepeatable spectacle.

However, much like a film trailer, the introduction was more thrilling than the content of the report itself, with the consensus being that while there may have been no Patient Zero, no one's hands were completely clean.

No doubt, in a sunbed somewhere on the Ards Pennisula, a former assembly member was reflecting on how quickly one can go from a starring role on the Nolan Show to barely a footnote in this particular production of Friday the 13th.