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Summary

  1. Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry examining botched energy scheme
  2. David Sterling, head of NI Civil Service, questioned on RHI involvement
  3. Former DETI permanent secretary Dr Andrew McCormick back at inquiry
  4. Inquiry set up after public concern over scheme's huge projected overspend
  5. Retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Patrick Coghlin chairing inquiry at Stormont
  6. Final week of public hearings, with appearances by high-profile witnesses

Live Reporting

By Iain McDowell and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. That's all for today...

    Bad light stops play on the penultimate day of evidence-taking at the RHI Inquiry.

    Dr Andrew McCormick is the nightwatchman - he'll be back at the crease bright and early tomorrow morning before Northern Ireland's former top civil servant Sir Malcolm McKibbin gives evidence.

    Parliament Buildings, Stormont

    Join us for the final day at the usual time of 09:45 - you know you'll miss it when it's gone...

    Have a great evening!

  2. What happened today at the RHI Inquiry?

    BBC News NI

    The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service apologised for "multiple failings" by Stormont officials in their handling of the RHI scheme.

    David Sterling

    David Sterling offered a "profound and unequivocal" apology for what happened and promised that lessons would be learned to prevent it from ever happening again.

    But the inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin said the civil service had a lot of convincing to do given that two previous major projects had also been botched as a result of similar flaws.

  3. 'Damning Audit Office report provided quare gunk moment'

    A devastating report that the Northern Ireland Audit Office produced about the RHI scheme in July 2016 was a "quare gunk" moment for civil servants at Stormont's economy department, says Dr Andrew McCormick.

    It revealed that "serious systematic failings" meant the RHI was likely to hit the Northern Ireland budget by "hundreds of millions of pounds" - you can read it here.

    It pointed out that the scheme was fundamentally flawed and set up in such a way that claimants could generate heat solely to earn profit.

    The RHI Inquiry

    Dr McCormick's use of a colloquialism throws some of the members of the inquiry panel.

    Londoner Dame Una O'Brien, still not quite familiar with unique Norn Iron speak in spite her year working on the inquiry, says: "I'm sorry, you'll have to explain it - what does it mean?"

    "Bombshell's not bad," explains the witness.

  4. 'Parties faced with political outcry over RHI closure'

    A decision to postpone the closure of the RHI scheme for two weeks in February 2016 was a "political judgement" for the DUP and Sinn Féin to make, says Dr Andrew McCormick.

    There had been a sharp reaction from people queuing up to join the scheme when the then enterprise minister Jonathan Bell announced at the start of that month that it was soon to close.

    Wood pellets

    Dr McCormick says MLAs were faced with a "public outcry and political outcry" and the DUP and Sinn Féin subsequently agreed to extend the deadline for applications.

    He had "no objection" or any "difficulty" with that move and didn't see "anything untoward" about it.

    But he admits there wasn't any "sophisticated calculation" about to whether two weeks was a reasonable length of time for the postponement of the closure and it was done in the "mood and context" of "wanting to resolve and move on extremely quickly."

  5. Who is Dr Andrew McCormick?

    One of the key civil service figures in the RHI debacle, Dr Andrew McCormick was the top civil servant at DETI when big problems with the scheme emerged and through until after its emergency closure.

    He had to clear up much of the mess that was created in the department by the political fallout over the scheme in late-2016 and early-2017.

    He has since switched roles and now has just as big a task on his hands as he deals with all things Brexit as Stormont's director general of international relations.

    Dr Andrew McCormick

    His witness statement to the inquiry makes for a dramatic read and you can find it in three parts here, here and here.

    He appeared before the inquiry twice last month, saying that he didn't "recall any resistance" from DUP advisers to the RHI scheme being placed on the agenda during ministerial meetings.

    On his most recent appearance a couple of weeks ago he said there was an "extremely leaky system" with confidential information at Stormont.

    Quick fact - his PhD was in isotope geochemistry.

  6. Witness Dr Andrew McCormick returns to give evidence

    The RHI Inquiry

    The penultimate witness to appear before the inquiry, Dr Andrew McCormick is a former permanent secretary at DETI, which set up and ran the RHI scheme.

    He's given evidence several times over the past two months.

    The questions today will largely be about the time of the closure of the RHI in January and February 2016.

  7. 'I regret saying minutes not taken to frustrate freedom of information'

    David Sterling says he regrets telling the inquiry that key meetings with Stormont ministers weren't minuted by civil servants in a bid to frustrate freedom of information requests.

    He made the admission back in March, saying it had come about because two largest parties at Stormont - the DUP and Sinn Féin - were sensitive to criticism.

    Inquiry barrister David Scoffield says the absence of record-keeping is one of the public's "key concerns" as a result of what the inquiry has uncovered.

    David Sterling

    Mr Sterling says it's more likely that the bad practice originated due to a concern that "sensitive issues being discussed" by ministers might "find their way into the public domain, whether by leak or other disclosure".

    The DUP and Sinn Féin "need to address" the issue of leaking internal documents before devolution returns at Stormont, he adds.

    "A document only needs to be leaked once to create a climate of mistrust," he adds.

  8. 'New legislation means NI will be without executive for another five months'

    The Northern Ireland Civil Service faces a difficult future in spite the prime minister's assertion that austerity has ended, says David Sterling.

    He lists problems in housing, health and education and says the challenge of Brexit is "placing huge pressure on departments", with the civil service now 17% smaller than it was four years ago.

    Karen Bradley

    And the Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley's (above) new bill on restoring devolution at Stormont means "we can be pretty sure there'll be another five months without ministerial direction".

    Civil servants have been operating without ministerial bosses for over a year and a half.

  9. 'Culture and behaviour is changing in civil service'

    A "cultural and behavioural change is being ingrained" in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, insists David Sterling.

    "We have been changing for a number of years," he adds.

    He understands people "might be cynical or sceptical about what I'm saying" but he's adamant that "we are very serious about this".

    Kieran Donnelly

    His remarks come a few days after the chief at the Northern Ireland Audit Office gave the inquiry a damning view of how the civil service has been operating.

    Kieran Donnelly (above) said it was "clear" that "value for money isn't front and centre in the minds of just too many civil servants" and there needed to be a "massive change in behaviours" from officials.

    Mr Sterling says "one of the most important aspects" of the work to change the culture within the service is to "break down barriers between departments and to break down barriers between the civil service and the wider public sector".

  10. 'Information commissioner laid out rules to top officials'

    The head of the watchdog that upholds the public's right to information met Stormont's most senior officials and laid out the rules and principles the Northern Ireland Civil Service must follow on the making and keeping of records.

    It came after David Sterling admitted to the inquiry in March that civil servants didn't take minutes of meetings in order to keep key information hidden from public view.

    A man making notes

    The Information Commissioner's Office spoke to Mr Sterling and other top civil service staff last month.

    The civil service boss says his organisation will be "giving particular attention" to "good public administration, record-keeping and governance" as a result of big concerns about those issues.

  11. 'Profound, unequivocal apology for our RHI mistakes'

    David Sterling makes "a profound and unequivocal apology for the mistakes that have been made" over the RHI debacle.

    Asked for an assurance that the failures are not symptomatic and widespread across the Northern Ireland Civil Service, he admits: "We should have done better."

    Top civil servants will do "everything possible to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again".

    David Sterling

    Any recommendations made by the inquiry will be implemented quickly and fairly, he vows.

    Sir Patrick Coghlin intervenes to emphasise that there have been failed projects in the past and the panel will be examining his promises carefully.

    "We do need to be convinced that third time around something's going to be effective," says the inquiry chair.

  12. 'Ó Muilleoir acting under Sinn Féin instruction on approval delay'

    David Sterling believed the then finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was "acting under instruction" from Sinn Féin in delaying giving his approval to the plan to cut the cost of the RHI scheme in January 2016.

    Measures to stop the flow of public money were drawn up by economy department officials but had to be signed off by the Department for Finance.

    The DUP's Simon Hamilton's, the then economy minister, told the inquiry that Mr Ó Muilleoir didn't give it the rubber stamp due to a "game" of political "foot-dragging" by Sinn Féin.

    Finance officials advised Mr Ó Muilleoir that the plan was good to go but he told the inquiry he was "right to be cautious" and "determined to get it right".

    And he denied seeking permission from senior Sinn Féin backroom figure Ted Howell before giving his thumbs up.

    Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

    At the time, Mr Sterling sent a text to the economy department's top civil servant saying that he "can't say whether the 'will' is there" on Mr Ó Muilleoir's part to approve the cost-cutting plan.

    Asked to elaborate on that, he says he knew big issues were often "discussed at party level" and the RHI was "clearly a very significant" one that had "attracted huge public interest".

    Mr Sterling says he was "quite seriously concerned" about the delay "because there was a lot at stake" and there was a "limited amount of time" to get the proposals passed in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

    His assessment was that due to the tension between the DUP and Sinn Féin, Mr Ó Muilleoir "wasn't likely" to give his approval easily.

    He says he'll give his former minister the "benefit of the doubt" that the concerns he claimed to have had were genuine.

  13. Inquiry resumes after lunch break

    The RHI Inquiry

    All set for a busy afternoon session, with more evidence from civil service boss David Sterling and then a final inquiry appearance from Dr Andrew McCormick, the former top civil servant at DETI.

    You can watch the proceedings by pressing play on the video at the top of this page.

  14. What's happened today at the RHI Inquiry?

    BBC News NI

    The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service denied that he tried to blame a senior colleague for the mess caused by the RHI scheme in order to get the top job.

    The RHI Inquiry panel

    David Sterling said it was "grossly unfair" that a DUP adviser suggested he'd tried to pin the responsibility on former enterprise department permanent secretary Dr Andrew McCormick in January 2016.

    The two men were later in the running to succeed Sir Malcolm McKibbin as the top civil servant at Stormont and Mr Sterling was appointed on an interim basis.

  15. 'Not easy to deal with RHI in febrile political period'

    Stormont ministers Simon Hamilton and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir "wanted to find a resolution" on a way to cut the RHI scheme's cost in winter 2016-17, says David Sterling.

    But the "intensively febrile political period" meant "there was potential for politicking" between the DUP and Sinn Féin about how it was being handled, he adds.

    Burning wood pellets

    "We were dealing with a very important issue in a very difficult political context... not easy."

    He points out that measures to stop big amounts of public money being lost through the RHI were ultimately put in place in January 2017 but it had been "much harder" to achieve that "because of the political context we were working in".

  16. 'Tension between DUP and Sinn Féin affected work on RHI'

    "Tension" between two DUP and Sinn Féin ministers at Stormont affected efforts to slash the cost of the RHI scheme in winter 2016-17 when the cash-for-ash fiasco erupted, says David Sterling.

    The inquiry heard all about that on Tuesday, when Sir Patrick Coghlin described the DUP's Simon Hamilton and Sinn Féin's Máirtín Ó Muilleoir (below) - then the economy and finance ministers respectively - as "alley cats... fighting" while public money was being wasted.

    There was a "sense that we were in an emerging political crisis", explains Mr Sterling, and officials knew "that was not going to help find a resolution to the problems we were addressing".

    Simon Hamilton and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

    His concern increased when there was a "worsening of relations" between the two political parties because civil servants felt Stormont was heading towards collapse and they would be "left without a means of legislating for the necessary change" to the RHI.

    Mr Sterling says it "didn't help" that key documents about the RHI were leaked to the media.

    "This was a pretty torrid period - we were dealing with existential issues in and around the future of the institutions," and there were "concerns at several levels", not least that a budget hadn't been agreed for Northern Ireland for the next financial year.

  17. 'Not much we could do when ministers delayed RHI shutdown'

    The decision to delay the closure of the RHI scheme in February 2016 was a pricey one - 298 more applications were approved in those two weeks and it's estimated that'll cost £91.5m over 20 years.

    Inquiry counsel David Scoffield asks whether Stormont finance officials would've taken "a more robust approach" to agreeing to it if they'd known about the ultimate cost.

    A biomass boiler

    Mr Sterling says "it may have made a difference" but once the DUP and Sinn Féin had made the decision any intervention from officials could've caused further delay.

    "There wasn't much more we really could do whenever the first minster or deputy first minister had agreed that this was the way that they wanted to play it."

  18. 'Officials disappointed by two-week delay to RHI closure'

    In early-2016, the DUP and Sinn Féin agreed to postpone the closure of the RHI scheme by two weeks to allow more people to apply.

    The inquiry has heard claims that the delay was sought by Sinn Féin.

    The RHI Inquiry

    David Sterling says he wasn't involved in decisions leading up to the delay and while Stormont's finance department didn't have any major concerns it was a "little disappointed".

    "We recognised that there was a risk if you [closed the scheme] too quickly that somebody might challenge [the decision in the courts]."

  19. 'I should've asked why DUP adviser removed poultry reference from RHI paper'

    David Sterling admits he should've asked more questions about why Arlene Foster's adviser changed an important document that stated the poultry industry was a key reason why the RHI scheme burst its budget.

    The document was drawn up in January 2016 and was to be sent to the first and deputy first ministers to seek their approval for the RHI's closure.

    It listed the poultry industry's "wholesale uptake" of the RHI as having contributed to the rocketing budget but Dr Andrew Crawford took that reference out - he admitted to the inquiry he shouldn't have done it.

    A document marked: Strictly confidential

    Mr Sterling says he wasn't aware of the significance of the reference at the time and he "didn't think it was worth having a major set-to" with Dr Crawford about it but he accepts that he should've delved deeper to establish the DUP adviser's motive.

    Sir Patrick Coghlin asks: "Can we take it he removed it because of the political aspect of being [an adviser] or because of his personal family connections - you don't remember any reasoning?"

    Mr Sterling says he doesn't remember it being a "major issue" and reminds the inquiry chair that it was an "intense" time when the scramble was on to shut the scheme down.

  20. 'Grossly unfair to say I passed RHI blame for career advantage'

    David Sterling denies trying to push blame for the RHI fiasco on to a fellow senior civil servant in order to gain an advantage in the race for the top job in the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

    He says the suggestion by an ex-DUP adviser is "grossly unfair".

    Mr Sterling sent a letter to DETI's permanent secretary Dr Andrew McCormick (below) at the end of January 2015 when the scheme was crashing and burning, effectively asking him, as inquiry counsel David Scoffield puts it: "How did you - DETI - allow us to get into the situation that we're now in?"

    Former adviser Tim Cairns, who was working at DETI at the time, told the inquiry that Dr McCormick felt there was an attempt to blame him unfairly.

    Dr Andrew McCormick

    Dr McCormick and Mr Sterling were in the running to succeed Sir Malclom McKibbin, who was due to retire from leading the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

    Mr Cairns thought that might have something to do with how Mr Sterling approached the RHI issue, although Dr McCormick doesn't agree.

    Mr Sterling says he's "totally clear" he didn't "try and pass blame on to anybody", adding: "It's just not in my nature to seek to do something like that."

    "I've known Andrew McCormick for 18 years - I would regard him as a friend and a colleague and I would absolutely refute any suggestion that I would do anything to try and pin blame on him."