Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster rejects any link between RHI and DUP supporters

Arlene Foster said RHI beneficiaries were not restricted to supporters of the DUP

ARLENE Foster has rubbished a suggestion that the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was benefiting DUP supporters.

The former first minister yesterday told the RHI inquiry that claimants of the botched green energy scheme were drawn from "all communities".

Mrs Foster was responding to questioning from inquiry senior counsel David Scoffield, who suggested "cynical" observers would argue that the scheme had benefited a large number of DUP voters and therefore she was reluctant to "blow the whistle" and bring it to a halt.

The DUP leader replied: "I think if you look at recipients of the RHI scheme they are wide and varied and across all communities in Northern Ireland.

"They certainly are not just restricted to supporters of the DUP."

Quizzed on why her witness statement had highlighted the attraction of the lucrative scheme to the agriculture sector, Mrs Foster said she became aware of its appeal to farmers after RHI was promoted by Stormont's agriculture department, then headed by Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill.

But while Mrs Foster agreed with Mr Scoffield's assertion that the DUP had a "large support base within the farming community", she was adamant that she never knew how generous the RHI subsidies were.

The inquiry's senior counsel suggested her party had "close connections" with the Ulster Farmers' Union.

Mrs Foster said the DUP would "advocate" for the farming lobby group, while she also agreed that her former special adviser Andrew Crawford would have had close contact with poultry processor Moy Park, many of whose suppliers benefited from the RHI.

Earlier in the day, the DUP leader confessed that RHI was not a "personal priority" for her and that she regretted not asking not asking more questions about it.

The former Stormont minister told the inquiry that she had a "false sense of security" due to the scheme "working" in Britain.

But again she cited a lack of information from her officials about the scheme's flaws.

"It's very difficult for me to go rooting about in a department to find out what isn't being brought up to me," she said.

Asked whether she felt she should have done more "rooting around", Mrs Foster said: "Through hindsight, of course one wishes that I had asked more questions in relation to the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

"But putting myself back at that period of time, as I think I've indicated on a number of occasions, it wasn't a personal priority of mine within the department."

Mrs Foster said she had "other personal priorities".

"It doesn't mean I wasn't interested – before somebody writes that tomorrow," she added.

The DUP leader said the RHI scheme was not one she was "passionately looking at every day of the week".

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin asked Mrs Foster if she did not get the impression it was "a unique scheme" which was "highly unpredictable" and "highly volatile", adding: "That didn't help to boost it up a bit in your concerns?"

Mrs Foster said she was probably in a "false sense of security" that a corresponding scheme was rolling out in Britain.

"I had the sense that it was working in GB, therefore it was coming to Northern Ireland," she said.

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