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RHI inquiry exposes alarming lack of transparency in Stormont

The Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry has provided an at times jaw-dropping insight into how devolved government operated in Northern Ireland prior to the collapse of the Stormont Assembly.

Anyone who believed that the power-sharing administration was a well-oiled machine, working efficiently and effectively in the interests of the public, will have have been completely disabused of that notion as a result of the evidence presented to inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin and his panel.

As the party in charge of Deti for the duration of the disastrous RHI scheme, the spotlight has been firmly on the DUP.

What we have heard to date has been far from edifying, laying bare personality clashes and simmering tensions while exposing the position of unelected special advisers who appeared to have a disproportionate level of power.

The RHI inquiry has the task of investigating all aspects of the ill-fated scheme including the role of ministers, special advisers, civil servants and anyone else involved in the initiative.

Under its terms of reference, the purpose of the inquiry is to 'restore public confidence in the workings of government.'

From what we have learned so far, that will be a tall order.

However, this exercise is important not only so we can find out what went wrong and who knew what in regard to RHI.

It is also about looking at the wider picture in terms of how power was administered at Stormont, the decision making process and the accountability of those in charge.

One of the more alarming issues highlighted by the inquiry is the lack of written notes about meetings and significant conversations involving government policy.

Until the RHI inquiry, many people would have assumed that such record-taking was part and parcel of government business.

But a different picture emerged in March when David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, told the inquiry some meetings were not minuted in order to frustrate freedom of information requests.

His remarks caused controversy at the time with former ministers denying they had asked officials not to take notes.

In his evidence this week, senior civil servant Andrew McCormick confirmed that the political parties' fear of leaks led to a 'culture of very limited record-keeping'.

He said the attitude developed that 'if you write something down it'll probably appear in the newspapers.'

We can only ask, why would the parties not want people to know what they were doing?

In any democratic system of government, transparency and accountability are absolutely essential.

The public is entitled to know how their money is being spent and what decisions are being taken on their behalf.

Whenever Stormont eventually returns, there needs to be a major change of culture, with political representatives and government departments robustly upholding the public's right to know.

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