Northern Ireland

RHI Inquiry: Five moments you might have missed

Wood pellets Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption There have been 111 days of oral evidence at the inquiry

The final week of the public inquiry into NI's flawed green energy scheme ended with some of the most shocking revelations and headlines.

It is examining what went wrong with the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

It was set up in 2012 to encourage uptake of eco-friendly heat systems - but large subsidies left NI taxpayers with a £490m bill.

BBC News NI picked out five key bits you may have missed over the past week.


1. Anonymous emails not my proudest moment' - Simon Hamilton

Image caption Simon Hamilton was economy minister from May 2016 until the assembly collapsed the following year

Day 108 of the inquiry started with a bang, and provided a raft of incredible information for the panel to get to grips with.

One of which was the admission that a DUP adviser anonymously sent civil servants' "explosive" emails to the media and to his department's top civil servant, in order to take pressure off the party at the height of the RHI scandal in 2017.

Simon Hamilton, a former Stormont economy minister, said his adviser John Robinson had taken the action with his knowledge.

He conceded it hadn't been his "proudest moment" and claimed it was done because the DUP had been under a sustained attack by political rivals and the media over the affair.

The emails showed contact between civil servants in Stormont's enterprise department and industry officials in summer 2015 about impending changes to the scheme to reduce its lucrative subsidies.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin said what Mr Hamilton and his party had done was use the "cloak of anonymity" to shift the blame from the DUP to civil servants, for whom he had responsibility as minister.


2. 'I didn't leak anything about RHI to media' - Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

Image caption Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was finance minister in May 2016

Yet another new witness on day 108, and the only figure from Sinn Féin to appear.

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was also the minister who set up the public inquiry into the RHI scheme.

He rejected DUP claims that his party had engaged in leaking information to the media about proposals to cut the costs of the RHI scheme in early 2017.

Mr Ó Muilleoir was to give approval to the economy department's proposals in his role as finance minister, and instead said he found Mr Hamilton's department difficult to work with.

He said there was "no evidence" that he had ever leaked any information from the economy or finance departments.

"So while he (Mr Hamilton) says he doesn't like my style of business, I respected absolutely confidentiality in my own department and in his," he said.


3. 'DUP and Sinn Féin like alley cats fighting' - Sir Patrick Coghlin

Image caption Sir Patrick Coghlin is a retired Court of Appeal judge and is chairing the inquiry's three-person panel

Sir Patrick Coghlin is no stranger to speaking out at the inquiry.

At times, some of the chairman's comments have generated their own headlines, and on day 108 he did it again.

Having listened to ex-DUP and Sinn Féin ministers Simon Hamilton and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir take turns blaming each other for shortcomings relating to the RHI scheme and how devolution worked, Sir Patrick said it seemed like the pair had been like "alley cats fighting" with each other.

The retired Court of Appeal judge said given the "clear threat" to public funds because of the scheme's overspend, there should have been a degree of positive co-operation between the economy and finance departments at that crucial time in January 2017.

At that time, devolution was on the verge of collapse as Sinn Féin was unhappy with how the DUP had handled the fallout over the scheme: the party pulled the plug on the institutions on 9 January 2017.

"If an ordinary member of the public whose tax money is being lost here, stood back and looked at this and did so with the hope there was co-operation to try to solve his loss of money, I doubt if he would have any great confidence in what was going on," said Sir Patrick.


4. 'Unbelievable RHI warnings not passed on' - Dame Una O'Brien

Image caption Inquiry panellist Dame Una O'Brien has vast experience as a senior Whitehall civil servant

The inquiry panel has heard more than 100 days of oral evidence, some of it pretty damning so it was surprising that inquiry panellist Dame Una O'Brien admitted that just three days before the end of hearings, she could still be shocked by some of the details emerging.

The reason? The body that administered the RHI scheme failed to tell a Stormont department of multiple warnings about the potential for the initiative to be exploited.

The Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) had been contracted by the enterprise department to run the scheme. It ran a similar scheme in Great Britain.

On day 109, the inquiry heard of one example of scheme exploitation in England, where sheep farmers were said to be selling their flocks and "raking in money from RHI".

Dame Una said it was "unbelievable" that Ofgem hadn't sent these details to civil servants in Northern Ireland, which could have allowed them to spot the critical flaws sooner.

The chief executive of Ofgem, Dermot Nolan, admitted the energy regulator had failed to pass information on in a "consistent fashion".


5. 'I didn't pin RHI blame on others' - David Sterling

Image caption David Sterling has been in charge of Northern Ireland's civil service since summer 2017

On the penultimate day of hearings, the man who leads Northern Ireland's civil service took to the witness chair to reject accusations he tried to blame a colleague for problems surrounding the RHI scheme, in order to get the top job.

In 2016, when the scandal became public knowledge, he was the Finance Department's permanent secretary.

He said a suggestion he had tried to blame the enterprise department's top civil servant, Andrew McCormick, for the mess was "grossly unfair".

The following year, both were the only shortlisted candidates for the vacant position of head of the civil service.

Mr Sterling was appointed in June 2017 on an interim basis.

Mr Sterling said he had known Mr McCormick for 18 years and considered him a "friend and a colleague".

"I would absolutely refute any suggestion that I would do anything to try and pin the blame on him particularly to try and gain some personal advantage in a competition which hadn't even launched."


The inquiry has finished its oral evidence, but it will be some time before the panel draws up its report and any subsequent recommendations.

BBC News NI will bring you the latest developments from the RHI debacle as and when they happen.

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