Northern Ireland

Now the RHI inquiry report is published, what happens next?

Retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, chair of the RHI inquiry. Picture by Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, chair of the RHI inquiry. Picture by Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

THE conclusion of the RHI inquiry does not necessarily mean the end of the controversy for Stormont.

In the 'New Decade, New Approach' deal to restore power-sharing, the executive parties pledged to establish a dedicated sub-committee to examine the report.

The committee will "consider the findings of the RHI inquiry and propose further reforms... to deliver the changes necessary to rebuild public confidence".

It added: "The parties agree to deliver any such reforms rapidly once the inquiry has reported."

This wording perhaps leaves wriggle room on how, or the extent to which, the RHI inquiry's recommendations are adopted by Stormont.

Separately in the deal, the British government agreed to "carefully review" the RHI inquiry's findings and consider their "implications for the use of public money in Northern Ireland".

The botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme had at one stage an estimated overspend of £700 million over 20 years before it was reined in.

Since payments were drastically slashed, MLAs have been told the current scheme is now operating with an underspend – drawing around £7m per year out of a budget from the British Treasury of £28m.

But the stringent cuts have faced a court challenge from RHI boiler owners who say they have been left in financial difficulty as a result.

Depending on the outcome, this could have implications for the Stormont executive's budget and decisions on the future of RHI.

In the deal to restore Stormont, parties had agreed that "RHI will be closed down and replaced by a scheme that effectively cuts carbon emissions".

The inquiry was only ever about investigating the controversy, and so could not determine any civil or criminal liability.

However, it emerged last year that the Information Commissioner's Office was carrying out a criminal investigation into the leaking of a list of RHI claimants to the BBC before their publication by the Department for the Economy.

The watchdog is also investigating alleged leaking of civil servants' emails to journalists.

In the aftermath of the RHI report, it is also possible that the NI Civil Service could consider disciplinary processes for some.

An audit of the civil service is also set to be carried out by the ICO after the north's chief civil servant David Sterling told the inquiry that some Stormont government meetings were not minuted to avoid Freedom of Information disclosures.