Statement by Rt Hon Sir Patrick Coghlin, Chairman of the Inquiry

09 March 2017

As the Chairman of the RHI Inquiry I welcome this initial opportunity, at the launch of our website, to address some important matters relating to our work.

This is an independent public inquiry. Although a Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive set it up, the Inquiry is not under the control of that Minister. When I agreed to take on this complex task I was promised complete independence, and I will insist upon it.

Much work has been done over the initial few weeks of the Inquiry’s existence. I want to give you some brief information about that work at this stage. 

I am pleased that Dame Una O’Brien has joined me on the Inquiry Panel. She has extensive experience at the highest levels in the Home Civil Service. The Inquiry has also appointed Dr. Keith MacLean OBE, someone with extensive experience in the energy industry, as an assessor.

The Inquiry has recruited an extremely experienced legal team, headed by David Scoffield QC, as Senior Counsel to the Inquiry. Joseph Aiken BL and Donal Lunny BL, the Junior Counsel to the Inquiry, have joined him. Patrick Butler BL has been appointed Solicitor to the Inquiry, along with Andrew Browne as Secretary of the Inquiry. These are key appointments, many with experience of public inquiries, secured very quickly in the circumstances. Most administrative posts have also been filled.

The Inquiry has set up its offices in Waterfront Plaza, Belfast. It has also secured its hearings venue: we will be using the Senate Chamber at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. We consider this to be the right location to conduct our public hearings, not least because using this accommodation provides significant savings to the public purse. Work has already begun to deliver the necessary adaptations to the chamber required to cater for the Inquiry’s needs. This includes providing the necessary IT infrastructure and ensuring that members of the public will have access to our forthcoming public hearings.

We have very quickly established the procedures that we intend to adopt. This will be an inquisitorial process, designed to establish the facts. It is not an adversarial trial and has no power to determine any person’s criminal or civil liability.

We are today publishing on this website various detailed documents that explain how we intend to go about our work. We are also providing, in the Frequently Asked Questions section of the website, more detailed background information about our progress.

The Inquiry has been gathering the relevant documentation surrounding the RHI Scheme. What is already apparent to us is that there is a huge amount of material from many quarters to be obtained and considered by the Inquiry, and this must be done before we can start our public hearings. During this investigatory phase the Inquiry will also be seeking answers from those it considers most likely to be able to assist with our work.

I appreciate that there is a huge appetite for information from the Inquiry. There have already been a significant number of requests for information from the media. While I fully understand the level of public interest, this Inquiry cannot and will not be in a position to provide a constant commentary on its work. When we have something to say, we will say it. In the meantime, it is vital that we press on with the task in hand. The Inquiry will use this website to provide updates on our work, as well as issuing press releases to the media when it is appropriate to do so.

I also appreciate, as does my team, that politicians and the public alike are anxious that this inquiry should complete its work and report as soon as possible. The Inquiry will work as efficiently as it can, but we must carry out our investigation thoroughly and accurately. No one would thank us for producing a fast, but flawed, piece of work. I cannot, at this early stage of the investigation, give a date by which our work will be complete. At present I can say that it will not be possible to report within 6 months, and I would draw attention to paragraph 17 of the Terms of Reference which simply provides that “The Inquiry will seek to work expeditiously and complete its report within a reasonable timeframe.” What I can assure you of is that our work will be done as efficiently as possible, and it will be done properly. 

It is the case that I was asked whether it would be possible for the RHI Inquiry to provide a preliminary report. I have explained to the Minister why that is not appropriate. It is because a preliminary report can only be just that. Any preliminary conclusions that could be reached would necessarily be based on incomplete information and might well have to be changed. A preliminary report may still have to go through the warning letter process, described in more detail in the Inquiry’s Procedural Protocol, and would probably cause duplication, delay and additional expense. It would also have the potential to be unfair to those who may be involved before the Inquiry.

The Inquiry intends to hold a preliminary public hearing in the course of April, to further explain our work, and we will identify when and where that will be at the earliest opportunity.

The RHI Inquiry team is determined that it will get to the truth of the matters it is investigating, and will do so as quickly as it possibly can.