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Summary

  1. Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry examining botched energy scheme
  2. Former DETI permanent secretary Dr Andrew McCormick gives evidence for first time
  3. Inquiry set up after public concern over scheme's huge projected overspend
  4. Retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Patrick Coghlin chairing inquiry at Stormont
  5. Public hearings entering critical phase with high-profile witnesses giving evidence

Live Reporting

By Iain McDowell and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. That's all for today...

    With just the half day of proceedings and a relatively uneventful opening there was been a distinct back-to-school atmosphere at the RHI Inquiry this afternoon.

    But the drama will likely pick up tomorrow when Dr Andrew McCormick and the usual cast of inquiry characters will be back on stage in the Stormont Senate chamber at 09:45.

    Stormont's Parliament Buildings

    We'll have a live stream and a text commentary so join us then.

    Enjoy your evening!

  2. Top DUP adviser 'involved in RHI cost control delays'

    Conor Macauley

    BBC News NI agriculture and environment correspondent

    The most senior adviser in the DUP was involved in the decision to delay the addition of cost controls to the RHI scheme, according to evidence given to the inquiry.

    Timothy Johnston (below) is said to have told a party colleague in June 2015 that they would not be introduced.

    Timothy Johnston

    The claim has been made by former DUP adviser Timothy Cairns.

    The delay until November that year allowed hundreds of extra claimants to join the lucrative scheme, adding a huge potential burden to the public purse until the subsidy payments were heavily cut.

  3. What happened today at the RHI Inquiry?

    BBC News NI

    Crucial knowledge about how the RHI scheme operated was lost as officials left the department responsible for running it, said one of Northern Ireland's most senior civil servants.

    Dr Andrew McCormick was the permanent secretary at DETI at the time when the major problems arose in the complex energy initiative.

    Dr Andrew McCormick

    He told the inquiry that there was "great regret" that "the baton was dropped" between staff.

    He also admitted that it was "impossible to defend" the low staffing level of just one full-time and one part-time official - dedicated to it during that time.

  4. 'Doesn't look good in cold, grey light of dawn'

    The relationship between DETI's energy and finance divisions "does't look good" in the "cold, grey light of dawn", says Dr McCormick.

    He says he only has limited insight into it, mainly through observation at meetings and by reading emails.

    Person typing email

    But he adds: "It looks as though there's a degree of tension - it looks as though there's a limited degree of communication."

    He puts this down partly to the culture of sending an email rather then walking down the corridor to speak to a colleague.

  5. 'Need to get spending approval isn't rocket science'

    None of the officials dealing most closely on the RHI scheme had worked in a finance role, says Dr McCormick.

    That could've been a reason why they missed the essential need for the initiative to be reviewed, as was required in its terms of approval.

    Pound coins

    But Sir Patrick has an answer to that: "You don't have to be an accountant to know that an approval is conditional."

    He says that without "being a specialist", civil servants should still be aware of what responsibilities they have when it comes to spending public money.

    "I agree - it isn't rocket science," acknowledges Dr McCormick.

  6. 'Lack of understanding about need for RHI review'

    The RHI scheme was given the go-ahead by finance officials at Stormont on the basis that it would be reviewed after its first two years of operation.

    But that never happened and the scheme ran on for months, with money being spent on it without authorisation.

    A biomass boiler

    Asked why he thinks that happened, Dr McCormick says there could've been a "lack of understanding" by civil servants about the need for the review.

    Mr Scoffield suggests it was a "fairly basic aspect of civil service procedure".

    "Yes, I think that's fair," responds the witness.

  7. 'Impossible to defend RHI staffing level'

    Just two officials - one full-time, one-part-time - drew up the RHI scheme and ran it for its first 18 months.

    Compare that with the team of 77 civil servants working on the near-identical RHI scheme in Great Britain.

    A man using a computer

    Dr MacLean uses that stark contrast to suggest that there was a "failure to recognise the quantity and the quality of resource needed to do the job".

    Dr McCormick says it's "impossible to defend the resourcing levels" that were allocated to the scheme.

    Even though the RHI scheme has been closed for more than two years, DETI now has 43 staff working on it.

  8. 'Doing things a little differently would've made a difference'

    Dr McCormick says there are two main answers if the "fundamental question is: Why did this scheme go wrong?"

    He points to the "initial failures of design... which look like human error" and the "failure to act on direct warnings" about the basic problems with the scheme.

    Sir Patrick Coghlin

    "There are quite a few things, which had they been just a little bit differently would've made all the difference," he adds.

    But there was a "total absence" of any sort of project management system, Sir Patrick Coghlin tells him.

    "Even I as a poorly-informed lawyer see the need for controls and warnings and they were there from the word go," says the inquiry chair.

  9. 'Did you take DETI's systems for granted?'

    Inquiry panellist Dame Una O''Brien is a former permanent secretary at the Department of Health in London, so he has vast expertise in civil service practices.

    She wants to know what attempts Dr McCormick made to strengthen accountability systems within DETI when he took the reins in 2014.

    Dame Una O'Brien

    He admits he probably didn't "stress-test" the system enough and Dame Una asks if he "took the systems for granted".

    "I did place reliance on them - whether that's taking them or granted, that carries a different connotation but I'm not sure that I can argue with it," he replies.

  10. 'Sinn Féin's Kearney gave me hard time at committee'

    Dr McCormick faced intense questioning about the RHI scheme by the Northern Ireland Assembly's Public Accounts Committee in the second half of 2016 - if you're a real nerd you'll have followed our coverage of those hearings at the time!

    He tells the inquiry that he had "rehearsed and carefully prepared" for what he would tell MLAs during his first appearance in September that year - his belief was that there had been a "systems failure".

    A man handing over a folder

    But that perception "totally changed" about 20 minutes before he was due to enter the committee chamber at Stormont when he was given a copy of a handover note that one civil servant had drawn up for his successors before he left the department in 2014.

    He admits that he "wasn't ready to deal with it there and then".

    "[The MLAs], especially [Sinn Féin's] Declan Kearney noticed that I was uneasy - they gave me a hard time later for not just just coming straight out and going: 'Look what I found.'"

  11. 'Never before been such wholesale change of staff'

    A man walking down steps

    Three key staff who had responsibility for the RHI scheme left DETI within the space of a few months across 2013 and 2014.

    Dr McCormick says he can't think of another time during his civil service career that such a wholesale change of staff too place.

    It was "clearly unsatisfactory" that the civil service had no system in place for dealing with such an overhaul, he adds.

  12. 'We are the system - we can't blame the system'

    Inquiry barrister Mr Scoffield (below) takes the witness to evidence given in June by Chris Stewart, who was Dr McCormick's deputy at DETI.

    Mr Stewart said he was unaware of there ever having been any formal system to make sure that knowledge about projects was shared whenever staff left the department.

    "Who's responsible for that?" asks Mr Scoffield.

    David Scoffield

    Dr McCormick's first thought is that it was the fault of "the system" but it appears to be more complicated than that.

    "We are the system - we can't blame the system. The system is what we, the leadership, make it.

    "So the responsibility for this lies with me personally in relation to the oversight of the department."

  13. 'Baton was dropped between staff on RHI'

    A key thing that went "very, very badly wrong" with the RHI scheme was that crucial information was not shared between the civil servants who were working on it, admits Dr McCormick.

    The inquiry has uncovered that a high turnover of staff at DETI meant that important knowledge about how the complex scheme operated was lost as officials moved to other parts of the civil service.

    People exchanging a baton

    There had been an over-reliance on "confidence in continuity", says Dr McCormick, but Sir Patrick tells him that "continuity... has never been present from the start" of the RHI scheme.

    "The baton was dropped and that's a matter of great regret from a civil service point of view," says the witness.

    "Part of what had got lost in the transition was the awareness of the novelty, scale, sensitivity of the scheme."

  14. 'Civil service balance too much in favour of generalism'

    A magnifying glass

    The balance of the Northern Ireland Civil Service is "too much in favour of generalism and not enough in terms of depth of expertise", says Dr McCormick.

    That view would fit with what many other witnesses have told the inquiry - the debacle has laid bare a distinct lack of specialism within the service.

    There was no energy expert at DETI when he joined the department in 2014, says the witness.

  15. 'Dive a little deeper rather than skim surface'

    In his role as permanent secretary at DETI, Dr McCormick's role involves - as he puts it - engaging with the department's minister on complex issues of policy.

    Inquiry panellist Dr Keith MacLean (below) queries whether Dr McCormick had a sufficient level of technical knowledge required to carry out that advisory role when he joined DETI.

    Dr Keith MacLean

    "Sometimes you do need that detail - a deeper dive perhaps than just skimming the surface," says Dr MacLean.

    Dr McCormick says that when he joined the Department of Health, which he led for nine years before joining DETI, he "had no expertise whatsoever in the health domain".

  16. What does Dr McCormick say in his statement?

    Conor Macauley

    BBC News NI agriculture and environment correspondent

    A dysfunctional relationship between former DUP minister Jonathan Bell and his adviser may have contributed to delays in dealing with the RHI crisis, says Dr McCormick.

    It emerges from his statement that the adviser Timothy Cairns raised allegations of bullying against the minister, including a claim that he had tried to break his finger and had swung a punch at him.

    Jonathan Bell

    Dr McCormick says he had not experienced the bullying behaviour ascribed to Mr Bell by others.

    But the difficult working relationship between the minister and the adviser contributed to the department's difficulties in dealing with the unfolding crisis, he believes.

  17. 'Quite a lot needed to be said'

    On to the day's main business - Dr Andrew McCormick is taking questions from the inquiry's senior counsel David Scoffield QC.

    Dr McCormick joined DETI - the department responsible for the RHI scheme - in June 2014 and his evidence is that the initiative wasn't brought to his attention until almost a year later when big cracks began to appear in it.

    Dr Andrew McCormick

    But he'll still have questions to answer about what was happening during that period - that will be the focus this afternoon - and he'll be back tomorrow for more and before returning in October for a final round of questioning about the eventual closure of the scheme.

    Mr Scoffield says the evidence that Dr McCormick has provided in written form is "so voluminous".

    "There certainly was quite a lot that needed to be said," replies Dr McCormick with a smile.

  18. 'Public evidence sessions to conclude by end of October'

    The inquiry panel, the legal teams and this afternoon's witness Dr Andrew McCormick settle into their seats for day 83 at the RHI Inquiry.

    First, some announcements from the inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin.

    The RHI Inquiry

    "We have returned with the autumn sunshine," he says before laying out plan for the next couple of months.

    And he sets a deadline - the inquiry intends have all of the public evidence hearings wrapped up - "subject to exceptional circumstances" - by 26 October this year.

    Closing submissions will be made on 5 and 6 December.

  19. Who is Dr Andrew McCormick?

    One of the key civil service figures in the RHI debacle, Dr Andrew McCormick will shortly give evidence to the inquiry for the first time.

    He was the permanent secretary - the top civil servant - at the Department for the Economy, formerly DETI, and had to clear up much of the mess of the RHI scheme.

    He arrived at the department in 2014, long after the scheme was conceived, and drew the minister Jonathan Bell's attention to major concerns over its operation in the summer of 2015.

    Dr Andrew McCormick

    His witness statement to the inquiry makes for a dramatic read and you can find it in three parts -here, here and here.

    He has since switched roles and now has just as big a task on his hands as he deals with all things Brexit as Stormont's director general of international relations.

    And here's a quick fact - his PhD was in isotope geochemistry.

  20. What is the RHI Inquiry?

    BBC News NI

    An independent inquiry into the RHI scandal was established in January last year by the then finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir.

    He ordered it in the wake of the huge public concern and what was then a developing political crisis surrounding the scheme.

    The RHI Inquiry began in November and Sir Patrick Coghlin (below), a retired Court of Appeal judge, is its chair and has been given full control over how it will operate.

    Sir Patrick Coghlin

    It will look at:

    • the design and introduction of the RHI scheme
    • the scheme's initial operation, administration, promotion and supervision
    • the introduction of revised subsidies and a usage cap for new scheme claimants in 2015
    • the scheme's closure

    For more information on the RHI Inquiry, you can read our handy Q&A.