Northern Ireland news

RHI Inquiry: Alastair Hamilton says Invest NI 'missed opportunity' to warn of flaws

Invest NI chief executive Alastair Hamilton at the RHI inquiry
Brendan Hughes

THE chief executive of Invest NI has accepted there was a "missed opportunity" for the public body to warn Stormont of problems with the RHI scheme.

Alastair Hamilton has been speaking at the RHI inquiry after it heard yesterday how a heating expert had flagged flaws in RHI with Invest NI at an early stage.

RHI Inquiry live: Former Moy Park chief executive Janet McCollum gives evidence

The inquiry heard how consultant Alastair Nicol's reports sent to Invest NI for its clients repeatedly identified flaws in RHI.

But the concerns were not referred to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti), which was in charge of the RHI scheme.

Invest NI is an arms-length public body which is part of Deti, a Stormont executive department now known as the Department for the Economy.

Mr Hamilton accepted that Invest NI "had evidence in reports that clearly showed" the RHI scheme was not operating as intended, adding: "Clearly there was a missed opportunity here."

"There was a missed opportunity and one that I am accountable for and I understand that," he said.

The inquiry has previously heard suggestions that Invest NI would have been better suited than Deti in delivering the non-domestic RHI scheme because of its strong links with the business community.

But Mr Hamilton said Invest NI senior strategic management only became aware of RHI "probably somewhere into 2014-15" – several years into the botched scheme's operation.

He said that a conversation about Invest NI being more involved never took place at a senior level, telling the inquiry: "It strikes me that we should have had that conversation at the outset."

"I think there was a capability that wasn't tapped into," he added.

In some terse exchanges, Mr Hamilton faced questions over whether Invest NI could have done more to help the RHI scheme's development and operation.

Chair of the inquiry Sir Patrick Coghlin branded the lack of senior communication between Invest NI and Deti on RHI as a "complete breakdown".

Mr Hamilton suggested that Invest NI may not have been asked by Deti to help deliver RHI because the "one part of the department that we had very little interaction with is the energy team".

The inquiry also heard about Mr Hamilton's former role as a special adviser (Spad) for the DUP.

Mr Hamilton, who was recruited when former DUP leader Ian Paisley was first minster, said his job title was "chief economic and business adviser to the first minister".

He said he was interviewed by "the first minister and his son", and that the interview happened before Ian Paisley Jnr became a junior minister in the executive.

Mr Hamilton, who is not a member of any political party, said he is supportive of the role of Spads when used properly to provide advice to ministers.

The RHI inquiry was set up after the subsidy scheme – which was launched in 2012 and aimed at encouraging the use of eco-friendly wood pellet boilers – ran significantly over budget due to a lack of cost controls.

The political fallout over the scandal led to the executive's collapse and the continued Stormont deadlock.

Later, the inquiry heard from Janet McCollum, former chief executive of the poultry production giant Moy Park, who last gave evidence in June.

Poultry farmers make up a significant proportion of RHI claimants, with most supplying Moy Park.

Ms McCollum said she now accepts the poultry giant received an indirect financial benefit from RHI.

The inquiry heard how Moy Park was "ramping up" efforts to get poultry farmers signed up to RHI before cost controls were introduced in autumn 2015, and before the scheme's closure to new applicants in early 2016.

It also heard of a meeting involving Moy Park, then DUP minister Mervyn Storey and party Spad Andrew Crawford in January 2016.

Ms McCollum said she "specifically" recalled Mr Crawford telling them the RHI scheme would soon be closing. Mr Crawford has denied tipping off Moy Park about RHI's closure.

Moy Park staff were also made aware of the time frame for cost controls in 2015 before the plans had been signed off by the minister, the inquiry heard.

Inquiry counsel Donal Lunny said: "That's really hot-off-the-press information that's being provided by officials to Moy Park."

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