With the setting up of the RHI inquiry, and the moth-balling of the NI Assembly committees, the heat has gone out of reporting around the non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. Probably a good thing admitted the News Letter’s Sam McBride at this afternoon’s Feilé An Phobail session examining RHI and the Media. The truth is more likely to be found in a less febrile environment he reckoned.
David McCann chaired the discussion between Sam, Allison Morris from the Irish News and the less-than-bashful Féile An Phobail audience. There was room for self-reflection as the two journalists questioned why it had taken so long for the media – and MLAs – to see the significance of the scheme as the regulations went through the Assembly. Later Allison suggested that that audit reports will be better scrutinised in future.
The role of BBC’s Spotlight programme was highlighted, explaining the story to a public whose anger could then be heard as they called into Stephen Nolan’s radio programme explaining how they couldn’t afford their own heating while RHI beneficiaries allegedly heated up empty barns. The audience were also reminded that John Manley had questioned Arlene Foster as early as October, leading to the quote from the then First Minister:
“I hope you’re not suggesting I get to see every single jot and tittle that goes on in every ministerial department. Ministers do not get to see that level of detail as you well know. We get to see the overall policy in terms of those renewable schemes.”
Both journalists admitted that there had been a tendency to simplify the RHI story. Sam looked forward to people ‘under oath’ at the RHI Inquiry shedding light on some of their previously conflicting accounts. Aside from finding out who stripped out the GB protections from the NI scheme, Sam suggested that we would learn a lot about how both the DUP (and SF) and the Civil Service went about their work at Stormont. Allison waits to see if a paper or email trail will explain the massive spike in scheme applications.
One veteran figure from Sinn Fein, Danny Morrison, commented that the party should have more quickly backed a public inquiry and was very pessimistic about the chances of breathing life back into the NI Executive.
Listen back for a refresher on the issues and key moments in the reporting ahead of the public hearings beginning in the autumn.