It’s like watching a cat getting sick in slow motion – not something you particularly enjoy acting as audience to, but difficult not to keep looking once it starts. I’m talking, as you’ve guessed, about the RHI inquiry. As-it-happens inquiries, where we get to see big shots squirming and stewing in their own juices, do get massive public attention. The Watergate inquiry was the big one, of course, back in the 1970s. But the RHI inquiry isn’t bad either. Or very bad, depending on how you look at it.
Here are six things that have snagged my attention so far.
- Sir Patrick Coughlin, the chair of the inquiry, is a dry-as-dust lawman with the air of one who has seen and smelt it all. He can deliver a blow to the throat or the head just by raising an eyebrow one millimeter or emitting a tiny sigh. We will have to wait to read his final report, but if I was a DUP stalwart I’d be praying that God would bring compassion into the good knight’s heart, because otherwise a lot of people are going to be toast.
- Like the gap between heaven and earth, there is a gulf emerging between the SPADs or special advisors and the DUP politicians. Excluding, of course, Jonathan Bell. I know Arlene Foster is coming up soon, but you’d have thought from the hearings so far that MLAs and the First Minister in particular were living in a spotless world where the grubbier chores were passed over to trusted SPADs who then betrayed that trust. It’s called passing the buck.
- How smart are the DUP SPADs? Maybe it’s an optical or aural illusion, but a lot of them seem to have doctorates. Mind you, that’s no indicator of common sense, let alone brains. What we’ve witnessed so far suggests a certain rat-like cunning rather than enlightened minds.
- All the evidence people are giving at the RHI is done under oath. Yet Sir Patrick Coughlan has already noted that in at least one case, there are two claims in direct contradiction of one another.
- When asked about a specific event, the SPADs have a tendency to reach for something bland like “I don’t have any recollection of that meeting” or “I cannot recall if I told her or not”.. And the good Knight Chairman doesn’t mind pointing up these contradictions: in one case a SPAD’s “I don’t recollect any meeting with the First Minister`” was met by “Well she says you did”, leaving the SPAD looking as if he’d been slapped across the gob with a wet fish.
- There is no hatred so deep or final as that between former comrades. The big guns among the SPADs have constructed a circular firing squad and are letting fly at each other with real intent.
The hearings have some way to go but already there is general agreement among politicians and pundits that the DUP has been exposed as a party where brotherly love was bound, gagged and thrown down a well. There are cliques and factions in all parties, but the DUP seem to have infused theirs with an injection of very dark spleen.
Are the SPADs worse than the politicians they serve? No, probably about the same level. Normally the SPAD in question is chosen by the Minister him or herself (with the obvious exception of Jonathan Bell). So it’s unlikely that a SPAD would have a different outlook on life. Yet we’re hearing that SPADs were up to all sorts of dubious practices.
One example. Dr Andrew Crawford (long-time adviser to Arlene Foster) tried desperately to divert attention away from the fact that his cousin Richard had six RHI boilers, or that another relative, John Crawford, had three RHI boilers. And of course their decisions had nothing to do with communication between Crawford and cousins on the RHI subject.
Will these revelations damage the DUP in the next election? Well, Ian Paisley Jr’s luxury hols and petitions to the PM don’t appear to have fazed them. Whether the RHI cat throwing up on the DUP carpet will make them feel differently is a matter of conjecture.