Sinn Féin pressed to keep RHI scheme open

Then First Minister Arlene Foster and then Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness met to discuss keeping the RHI scheme open. Picture by Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

SINN Féin was complicit in efforts to keep the RHI open for a further two weeks after Jonathan Bell wanted it shut down, according to evidence uncovered by the inquiry in to botched scheme.

Minutes from civil service head Malcolm McKibbin show a meeting took place on February 9 2016 between then First Minister Arlene Foster and then Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

The first item on the agenda was the closure of RHI and a discussion about whether "the scheme should be left open until a date to be determined to allow for the completion of applications already in progress".

The meeting shows that Mr McGuinness's special adviser Aidan McAteer was "to progress this".

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Former Economy minister Jonathan Bell, who wanted the RHI closed down on February 15, says he was unaware of the meeting.

The evidence also reveals a text message on the day after the meeting from Mr McAteer to Timothy Johnston, Mrs Foster's spad, in which the Sinn Féin adviser said: "We should keep any discussion of a soft landing for renewable. [sic] Heating scheme out of the Executive."

Mr McAteer asks if a meeting can be arranged later that day between Mr Bell and Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy "so they can go public with it in an agreed manner".

Asked by the inquiry what the Sinn Féin spad means by a "soft landing", Mr Bell says he has "no idea" and no knowledge of the exchange.

Mr Bell's adviser arranged a meeting that day with the minister and Mr Murphy, which the former DUP MLA recalls was to "brief him on the current position" regarding the RHI.

The former DUP minister says that nobody else was present at the meeting and that beforehand he tried but was unable to obtain accurate information about the implications of keeping the scheme open.

Mr Bell insists the decision to keep the scheme open beyond his desired date was made by Mrs Foster and not by him and Mr Murphy.

While the DUP minister wanted the RHI closed immediately he could only secure agreement to close the scheme on February 29 – an approach which a contemporaneous letter from Mr Bell to fellow DUP minister Mervyn Storey shows was an approach that Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness were "content with".

"My own view (is) that the interests of industry and private businesses did not outweigh the public interest in closing the scheme sooner to minimise further public expenditure," Mr Bell's witness statement states.

"However I was over ruled [sic] by the first minister."

On February 11, Mr Murphy emailed finance committee member Máirtín Ó Muilleoir to state: "Having secured an additional 2 weeks we will probably not get anything further and may be obliged to support it in the assembly."

In a separate email from Mr Ó Muilleoir, uncovered by the inquiry, it is claimed that Mr Murphy met with Mr Bell to "press him not to go ahead" with the scheme's closure on February 15.

"The minister did concede this point and extended the closure to date to 29 February," the email from the Sinn Féin finance minister said.

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