Northern Ireland

RHI: SF minister calls for public inquiry

Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
Image caption Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir has asked officials to take steps to establish a public inquiry into the controversy surrounding the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

Mr Ó Muilleoir confirmed the news in a statement on Thursday.

He said he had received legal advice over the issue and would make a full statement to the Assembly next week.

DUP leader Arlene Foster welcomed, what she said was, Sinn Féin's "change of heart" over the inquiry issue.

'Legal advice'

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said: "It is clear that, with time short until the Assembly dissolves, the only way to serve the public interest is for me as Finance Minister to move to institute a public inquiry immediately,"

"No other type of investigation is now feasible given time pressures.

"I have now instructed officials to take the necessary steps to establish a public enquiry under the Enquiries Act 2005 into the RHI scheme.

"I have received legal advice in regard to these matters."

'Truth of the issue'

Mr Ó Muilleoir added: "This inquiry will be impartial and objective. I will not interfere in its work. It will be tasked to get to the truth of this issue.

"I call on all parties to sign up to unrestricted, unedited publication.

"I am aware that the RHI issue goes beyond financial matters to questions of governance and probity.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Mrs Foster was accompanied by party colleague, Nigel Dodds, while she made her statement

"By getting to the truth of the RHI scandal, this enquiry report will, I believe, address those wider issues, and, therefore, put the public first."

Mrs Foster said a public inquiry had been something she had been wanting for some time and was pleased it was finally going ahead.

'Nothing to hide'

"Finally we will get some due process in and around these matters and we will get to the truth of what happened in relation to RHI scheme," she said.

"I have always said, and it was confirmed yesterday in the committee, that I have absolutely nothing to hide and so I look forward to the inquiry reporting.

Image caption SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon welcomed the move to hold a public inquiry

"It would have been better if the inquiry had completed before any election, however we are where we are."

Sinn Féin has been accused of flip-flopping on whether RHI should be subject to a full public inquiry or an independent investigation.

Ulster Unionist Finance spokesperson Philip Smith MLA said: "What on earth is Sinn Fein's game here?

'Turned on their heels'

"One minute they are producing their own terms of reference for an independent inquiry. Then they are lambasting others for suggesting the Inquiries Act be used.

"Earlier today Declan Kearney was insisting they would not trigger an inquiry. Yet this afternoon they have totally turned on their heels."

SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon welcomed the move to hold a public inquiry.

Image caption TUV leader Jim Allister said Sinn Féin had "tied themselves in knots several times" about whether or not there should be a public inquiry into RHI scandal

"Over the last 30 days of dithering alone, £2.5m of public money has been lost to the RHI black hole by Executive parties resisting the highest standard of accountability on this issue," she said.

"The finance minister must now take the advice of the Lord Chief Justice to appoint a respected judicial figure to oversee this inquiry and give the inquiry full authority to publish their report independently from his office or department. There must be no suspicion of interference."

TUV leader Jim Allister said Sinn Féin had "tied themselves in knots several times" about whether or not there should be a public inquiry into RHI scandal.

"The finance minister's move onto the ground occupied by other parties weeks ago reeks of political opportunism on the mouth of the election," he said.

"Like the DUP, Sinn Féin are clearly slow learners when it comes to this issue. The right terms of reference for this inquiry are crucial."