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Suzanne Breen: No one looks good in this RHI mess

By Suzanne Breen ·

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DUP leader and former Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster giving evidence at the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry yesterday

Civil servants are not individuals who seek the limelight. By their very nature, they loathe controversy. They aim to perform their job anonymously and quietly from the side of the pitch.

Northern Ireland's top civil servant, David Sterling, will hate the fact that he has hit the headlines.

And there are no signs of that changing while the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry is still running.

But even worse for Mr Sterling is that he appears to be on a collision course with DUP leader Arlene Foster.

When giving evidence to the inquiry yesterday, she dismissed as "nonsense" his claim that notes of ministerial meetings were not taken due to concerns from the DUP and Sinn Fein about Freedom of Information requests.

The DUP leader said she wasn't aware of any lapse in the practice of note-taking at ministerial meetings.

She said that she found the idea of that "shocking, frankly".

Mrs Foster's evidence is surely a direct and unparalleled challenge to the head of the Civil Service.

There is more than recent history - albeit very important history - at stake here.

A fresh round of talks to restore the Stormont institutions is inevitable later this year.

If they succeed and the executive gets back up and running, Mrs Foster will be First Minister again.

After such a clash of evidence with Mr Sterling at the RHI inquiry, it is very hard to see how the pair of them can rebuild the constructive, positive working relationship they enjoyed in preceding years.

There are wider consequences too.

Without an overhaul, the general atmosphere between politicians and civil servants at Stormont will in future surely be one of unease in light of what has transpired at the inquiry.

No matter who is telling the truth, no one comes out of this mess looking good.

If a culture existed which was hostile to officials taking minutes, it was up to them to challenge that and keep a record regardless.

Mrs Foster said she wasn't aware that minutes weren't being taken.

In evidence earlier this week, her former special advisor Dr Andrew Crawford said notes were taken at every meeting involving a minister he attended.

"I don't know what (civil servants) were putting in their notebooks - maybe they were doing their Tesco shopping for that afternoon," he stated.

But minutes clearly weren't being presented after meetings. So why didn't the DUP query that?

At the very least, the evidence at this inquiry seriously challenges the DUP's reputation for competency.

At the very least, the evidence at this inquiry seriously challenges the DUP's reputation for competency.

The acknowledgements by Mrs Foster that she hadn't read documents and didn't know the overall cost of the RHI scheme when she signed off on it certainly won't finish her political career but they do raise questions about her ability to operate at ministerial level.

In the past, even the DUP's most stringent critics would acknowledge that it was extremely capable and meticulous.

That image is under threat.

While the party's ability at winning elections and negotiating are beyond dispute, its governmental skills certainly now are not.

Questions will also be asked as to why Dr Crawford is still working for the DUP despite admitting that he sent a confidential RHI document to his poultry farmer cousin.

Ordinary people will find the whole RHI scenario preposterous and their faith in devolution will be further weakened.

At meetings of sporting and community organisations up and down the country, where business far less substantial is discussed, records are consistently kept and one of the first items on the agenda of a meeting is the minutes of the last one.

Yet at Stormont there are no minutes of meetings at which decisions were being made involving vast amounts of public money. That alone is scandalous.

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DUP leader and former Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster giving evidence at the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry yesterday