We've all been burned by heating scandal

Arlene Foster and Jonathan Bell
Image caption Arlene Foster and Jonathan Bell's accounts are contradictory

Politics red in tooth and claw, that's what was on display in Thursday's remarkable interviews with Jonathan Bell and Arlene Foster.

Two politicians with their reputations on the line, speaking under the shadow of the axe which will fall on whoever the public eventually deem is to blame for the RHI debacle.

Arlene Foster and Jonathan Bell's accounts are contradictory - contradictory about the role of special advisers, contradictory about who intimidated whom during a tempestuous meeting inside Stormont Castle and contradictory about who wanted to shut down the scheme quickly and who wanted to give it just an extra month, an extra week or an extra expensive day.

How can we work out where the truth lies?

The Public Accounts Committee, which is already conducting an inquiry into the heating scheme, looks like the most obvious immediate avenue.

But even some of its own members doubt they have the necessary powers.

In the past, Stormont committees have failed to demonstrate the forensic skills required to unravel some complexities.

Maybe a judge-led inquiry is preferable. However, that means yet more costs, on top of the costs of inspecting all the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) boilers and the costs haemorrhaging from the Stormont budget until someone finds a way to staunch the financial wound.

Whatever kind of investigation is held, the testimony of the career civil servants involved is likely to be crucial. They appear to be the nearest the public have to neutral witnesses to the skirmishes in this internal DUP war.

Moreover, whilst the Nolan interviews shone a light on dark corners of Stormont hitherto unseen, they still left us none the wiser about what motives might have been behind the failure to close down the RHI scheme.

Gathering more evidence about what lobbying was going on and who the claimants were should shed light on why on earth no one moved swiftly to plug the gaping leak in Stormont's budget.

'Expensive fire'

"Cui bono?" The old Latin question about who stands to gain needs to be asked again and again.

Whilst the blame game is necessary and inevitable, no one must lose sight of the fact that Stormont is committed to paying out on this scheme for the next 20 years.

Those contracts must be re-examined in order to see if the "too good to be true" deal can be renegotiated.

If RHI claimants are generating useless heat simply to make money from a scheme which the European Commission was told would be strictly limited to "useful heat" then there has to be scope for contracts to be declared null and void.

People who bought expensive heating units in good faith shouldn't be out of pocket. But neither should they be allowed to dip their buckets into a money pit for years to come.

We have all been burned, some heads must surely roll, but Stormont needs to act swiftly to put out this impossibly expensive fire.

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