Northern Ireland

Arlene Foster vows to learn lessons of RHI as inquiry concludes

DUP leader Arlene Foster speaking to the Press Association following the publication of the RHI inquiry report. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA
DUP leader Arlene Foster speaking to the Press Association following the publication of the RHI inquiry report. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA

ARLENE Foster has vowed to learn lessons from Stormont's botched RHI scheme after a public inquiry identified a "multiplicity" of mistakes which caused the scandal.

"Errors and omissions" rather than corruption were to blame for the controversy which led to Stormont's three-year collapse, the inquiry report released yesterday found.

The green energy scheme was a "project too far" for the devolved government which should never have attempted.

Mrs Foster faced criticism for not reading key draft legislation when she was enterprise minister and launched the scheme.

However, the report also highlighted a raft of failings by civil servants and "unacceptable behaviour" by several DUP special advisers.

Responding to the report, Mrs Foster apologised for her mistakes but said she would not be quitting.

"Obviously there are issues when I look back that I wish had done differently," the First Minister and DUP leader told the Press Association.

"I apologise for that and apologise for any failings on behalf of the party."

She said the report provides a "roadmap" to rebuild public trust in devolved government.

"Obviously I look back at the mistakes that were made and wish things had happened in a different way but I think for me what I have to do now is learn the lessons, particularly around my piece and also around the whole governance piece as well, being the First Minister, to make sure that those are implemented," she said.

Launched in 2012, the non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was supposed to encourage businesses to use more sustainable fuels.

But flaws meant subsidies paid out were larger than the price of wood pellets – creating a perverse incentive to 'burn to earn'.

The problems caused an overspend worth millions of pounds which threatened Stormont's finances, and the fall-out of what became known as the 'cash for ash' scandal led to the collapse of power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin in January 2017.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin's report, stretching to 656 pages, found that responsibility for the issues "lay not just with one individual or group but with a broad range of persons and organisations".

"Corrupt or malicious activity on the part of officials, ministers or special advisers was not the cause of what went wrong with the NI RHI scheme, albeit the inquiry has identified some instances where behaviour was unacceptable," the report said.

In a warning for the current devolved administration, which was restored in January after a three-year hiatus, the report added: "There is no guarantee that the weaknesses shown in governance, staffing and leadership revealed by the inquiry's investigation of the NI RHI scheme could not combine again to undermine some future initiative."

The report contains 319 findings and makes 44 recommendations on addressing the issues identified.