Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster 'should apologise' for renewable heating scheme, Jonathan Bell says

First Minister Arlene Foster and Strangford MLA Jonathan Bell

ARLENE Foster personally ordered that the botched renewable heating scheme be kept open, former minister Jonathan Bell has claimed.

The former minister also said a public enquiry should be held into the scheme which could cost taxpayers up to £400 million.

In a landmark interview broadcast tonight, the former economy minister broke party ranks to call for First Minister Arlene Foster to apologise for how she handled the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

He claimed Mrs Foster shouted at him in a "hostile" and "abusive" meeting in January this year and insisted the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) should not be closed.

Stormont has been dogged by controversy over flaws in the £1.2 billion scheme, first highlighted by a whistleblower several years ago, which meant that claimants could earn money for burning fuel.

Mrs Foster has faced calls for her resignation over the scheme which was developed during her time as economy minister. She insisted yesterday she would not stand down and insisted Mr Bell had actually wanted RHI to be kept open until March of this year.

She added that she had decided on a two-week window before the final closure in February to mitigate against any legal challenges.

Mrs Foster said Mr Bell had first been told of concerns about the scheme in the summer of 2015 but only tried to alter RHI in September of that year.

And in a broadside against Mr Bell she accused him of being "very aggressive" and said she had felt "intimidated" by him. She said party officials would now decide Mr Bell's future within the DUP.

Mrs Foster also insisted plans were in place to reduce the cost of the scheme.

Arlene Foster speaking to the Irish News in October about RHI:

During his interview on the BBC's the Nolan Show, Mr Bell made a series of extraordinary claims, including an allegation that two DUP special advisers went over his head and blocked the scheme from being closed, effectively costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds.

The Strangford MLA named the advisers as Timothy Johnston, who has worked in the First Minister's office since May 2007, and Dr Andrew Crawford who worked in the Department of Finance.

Mr Bell said he wanted the part of the scheme which allowed claimants to earn money to be closed on October 1 2015. However, this was not done until mid-November, by which time a spike of almost 900 new applications had been received at an estimated cost to taxpayers of around £485 million.

"I'm saying factually as the record will bear out," he said. "I sought to close the scheme on the 1st October to a lower tariff which would have left us in a manageable situation."

The 46-year-old said the advisers asked Mr Bell's special adviser to remove references to Arlene Foster and the Department of Finance.

And he said he only became aware of this when a senior civil servant told him in a secret meeting.

He added: "I believe my officials when they tell me there is a documented email trail which shows an attempt behind my back without the knowledge of the Minister of the Department to cleanse the record".

He said he informed Mrs Foster, deputy leader Nigel Dodds MP and party chairman Lord Morrow of his concerns in writing.

However Mrs Foster said there was "no evidence" for the allegations. "No one from the OFMDFM (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) intervened."

"I certainly didn't intervene because I was the finance minister," she added.

Mr Johnston and Dr Crawford said they never sought to keep the RHI scheme open against Mr Bell's wishes.

Dr Crawford acknowledged that his brother's company did avail of the scheme.

Mr Bell said in January this year Mrs Foster called him to a meeting and demanded that the scheme be kept open - the same month as the British Treasury had warned the executive that it would not pick up the bill for the scheme.

He said as soon as he received the Treasury's notice he tried again to close the scheme. But he said Mrs Foster, who was then First Minister, told him he had to give a ministerial directive to keep it open.

He said during the meeting Mrs Foster "was highly agitated and angry because I had been refusing the whole way for the last period and telling them I wasn’t going to do this".

He described the atmosphere in the room as: "Hostile. Fear. It was abusive".

The scheme was eventually closed in February.

A tearful Mr Bell said he did not insist the scheme was closed in January due to "collective responsibility" but said in retrospect he should have resigned.

"The regret that I ultimately have now when we are seeing terminally ill children being sent home from hospitals is that I didn’t resign," he said.

He said Mrs Foster should apologise to the people of the north "for the fact that a scheme was allowed to run, for the fact that special advisers were allowed to overrule me".

He added: "I think the situation is so significant that you first of all have to deal with a major problem you can’t stick a plaster over a gaping wound and you deal with it by means of a public enquiry."

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