Northern Ireland news

All eyes on DUP's Arlene Foster as RHI report set for release

Three years since it was established, the RHI inquiry will today deliver its findings on the green energy scandal that brought down Stormont. Brendan Hughes looks back on the controversy and the key issues

A laptop in the Great Hall of Stormont's Parliament Buildings in Belfast showing DUP leader Arlene Foster giving evidence to the RHI inquiry in September 2018. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA
Brendan Hughes

OF the many political crises which have threatened Stormont in recent years, few would have predicted this would be the one to finally topple power-sharing.

Launched in 2012, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme was meant to be an uncontroversial effort to encourage businesses to switch from fossil fuels to more sustainable alternatives.

However, it had inherent flaws: The subsidies paid to boiler owners were worth more than the cost of wood pellets, and there was no cap on payments – encouraging firms to 'burn to earn'.

The scheme threatened Stormont's finances and had to be shut to new applicants as its budget spiralled out of control.

A damning Audit Office report exposed the financial blunders in summer 2016, but it was only later that year when it escalated into the 'cash for ash' scandal.

Read More:

The controversy was fuelled by the compelling political drama of Arlene Foster, DUP leader and Stormont's first minister, being in the firing line.

In an Irish News interview she asserted that although she was the minister who launched RHI, she could not be across "every single jot and tittle".

But Mrs Foster faced mounting questions when a BBC Spotlight programme revealed she had been warned by a whistleblower, and in a Nolan Show interview her party colleague Jonathan Bell broke ranks to allege she "overruled" him when he tried to close RHI.

After the First Minister refused to stand aside for an investigation, Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister – prompting the executive's collapse.

A laptop in the Great Hall of Stormont's Parliament Buildings in Belfast showing DUP leader Arlene Foster giving evidence to the RHI inquiry in September 2018. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA

Stormont remained in limbo for three years, only to finally be restored in January with a new agreement.

The public inquiry into RHI finished its hearings in December 2018, and today at 2pm its findings will finally be released.

Many involved will be waiting nervously to see what inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin will conclude.

Prior to publication, almost 50 letters were sent as part of a 'representations process' to individuals or organisations expected to face criticism, the News Letter reported.

The inquiry hearings revealed multiple problems with the scheme, from its inception to its eventual closure.

There were staff shortages, civil servants had little to zero expertise in energy policy, multiple warnings were ignored, and when the problems finally dawned on them, plans for cost controls were openly shared with industry – exacerbating a huge spike in applications.

The inquiry also gave an insight into the workings of devolution, exposing a dysfunctional set-up.

A recurring concern was the influence of DUP ministers' special advisers (Spads) and various perceived conflicts of interest.

Retired appeal court judge Sir Patrick Coghlin opening the RHI inquiry in 2017. Picture by Mal McCann

Mrs Foster's then adviser Andrew Crawford had a poultry farmer brother and two cousins with 11 RHI boilers between them. Despite this, he shared inside information with relatives and with industry.

One of the DUP's former Spads, Tim Cairns, faced two days of inquiry questioning.

He was Spad to Jonathan Bell, Mrs Foster's successor as enterprise minister, and claimed that Mr Crawford and the DUP's top official Timothy Johnston had involvement in delaying cost controls.

"I think for anybody who was involved in the [inquiry] process, Friday is going to be a relief that, whatever is said in the report, there will be an opportunity for people to move on, but it's also an opportunity for lessons to be learned," Mr Cairns said.

"It has been a long three years. It's not a process anybody would choose to be part of, for sure. I think I would say the process was rigorous but fair."

Stormont has already agreed new measures to improve the accountability of Spads, but the inquiry could recommend further actions.

Mr Cairns said: "Going forward special advisers should be part of the full disciplinary apparatus within the department."

Stephen Grimason – the executive's former director of communications, who retired some months before the RHI controversy erupted – said politicians, Spads and civil servants will all likely face criticism.

He believes the civil service is "going to come out of this very badly" and said "morale is already very, very low".

"There are lots of people in the civil service who are extremely upset by all this, that the whole reputation of the civil service has been hugely undermined," he added.

Mr Grimason said much work is needed to "restore the civil service's reputation", but added that remedies already exist such as enforcing the civil service code.

The NI Civil Service declined to comment or be interviewed ahead of the report's publication.

At the height of the controversy, RHI was warned to have a potential overspend of £700 million over 20 years, but subsidy payments have since been drastically slashed.

RHI recipients are reluctant to speak publicly due to controversy surrounding the scheme, but many are unhappy with the cuts and they are being challenged in court.

The boiler owners, many of whom took out huge bank loans to pay for installation costs, have warned of financial hardship as a result.

One north Antrim farmer for poultry giant Moy Park described the 2019 cuts by Westminster as "savage".

"People are finding it impossible. I hear stories of people selling cars, selling tractors. I heard of one man selling his cattle to stop the bank closing in on him," he said.

"Unless the tariff changes substantially people are going to close down."

As the minister who launched the scheme and newly reinstated as First Minister, all eyes will be on what the report says about Mrs Foster.

The DUP leader has insisted that officials should have given her more information and flagged up any issues, but she also admitted she had not even read the RHI regulations when she brought them to the assembly for approval.

With Stormont back and Brexit no longer making headlines, Mrs Foster's position seems much more secure than it was a year ago.

Mr Cairns is not expecting any "curve balls" in the report which could place her position in jeopardy.

"I don't think her position on Friday at 2pm will be any more tenable or untenable, because I don't foresee there will be any new angle," he said.

"We know everything that she has done or hasn't done."

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Northern Ireland news