Arlene Foster was Minister at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment when the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme was introduced. She was responsible for implementing and managing the scheme when it was brought to Northern Ireland, having been previously rolled out in Britain.
While she was in post as Minister, a conscious decision was made to alter the funding programme model so that, unlike the parent scheme rolled out in Britain, tiering was not introduced and there was no cap on the subsidy payments.
From Conor Spackman’s BBC report:
….[The] department missed important cost controls introduced in Great Britain.
Firstly tiering – or paying two different rates. In Britain, the rate paid each year starts off high to incentivise customers to switch to a wood-burning boiler. Then it drops off significantly to less than the cost of production – avoiding “the more you burn, the more you earn” issue.
Tiering was not introduced in Northern Ireland. Here, there was one flat rate which was too high.
Subsequently, a whistleblower made direct contact with Arlene Foster to outline real concerns about the scheme. Arlene Foster passed information to officials but utterly failed to fulfill her ministerial responsibilities to ensure these concerns were addressed in a manner that would not end up costing the rest of us over £400m.
Two of the most important questions which need to be answered by the DUP First Minister relate to why the British scheme was deliberately altered to leave it vulnerable to abuse, and who exactly benefitted from this development? (Further to Brendan’s point in the Comments below: That is not to suggest that the revised Northern Irish scheme was devised with abuse in mind, but clearly there needs to be a transparent investigation to establish the ‘how’ and ‘why’ that led to this state of affairs.)
Arlene Foster is, at the very least, likely to be found guilty on the charge of incompetence (asleep at the wheel, in the words of Jim Allister) in the public’s eye. But another source for serious embarrassment for the party, and Mrs Foster, could be if it is discovered that a pattern of interest in the scheme is confirmed.
Of course, that would require the names of the beneficiaries to be released to the general public. This is something which the DUP appear very reluctant to do.
The identity of the “hundreds and thousands of people” who benefitted from the scheme (according to Simon Hamilton) should not be concealed by a DUP party who appear very anxious about revealing the names of the individuals.
Mark Carruthers nailed it during his interview with a clearly under pressure Simon Hamilton on Thursday night’s The View:
Your reluctance to put that information in the public domain could be because there are names on that list that could be embarrassing for your party.
Some of those names are starting to make their way into the public domain.
Sam McBride is reporting in today’s Newsletter that a Free Presbyterian Church is due to benefit handsomely from the RHI scheme, to the tune of £270,000 over the 20-year period.
One of the church’s elders is DUP MLA Mervyn Storey who, as Sam notes, was a DUP Minister in the last Executive.
Mr Storey told the Newsletter that he had no role “whatsoever” in the application and that he hadn’t alerted the church to the scheme’s existence either. There is no reason to doubt what Mr Storey is saying.
Much more damaging for the DUP and Arlene Foster is the news that the brother of her own Stormont Special Adviser (SpAD) while she was introducing the RHI scheme, Andrew Crawford, is one of the beneficiaries of the RHI scheme.
As Sam McBride wryly notes, the role of a £85,000 a year SpAD is to spot problems such as the RHI scheme. Mr Crawford now works alongside the DUP Agriculture Minister, Michelle McIlveen.
The Irish News’ John Manley has been out in front with regard to this story for some time, and he intriguingly noted earlier today how, in the 10 weeks between talk of closing the RHI scheme and actually doing so, there was a spike in applications.
The identity of those particular applicants should make fascinating reading.
The cost of the failure of the Minister and her Department to properly implement the RHI scheme is one which will be felt by all in this society for years to come, as Conor Spackman has pointed out:
Actions were not taken and the NI taxpayer has been left with a bill for hundreds of millions of pounds.
Enough to pay for the new Omagh hospital, converting the A26 at Frosses in County Antrim in to dual carriageway, the Belfast Interchange Project and the Belfast Rapid Transit system – with £15m left over.
This story can only grow legs, and the stand taken by the DUP’s partners in government, Sinn Fein, will be crucial to ensuring that a transparent investigation is conducted capable of securing the confidence of the wider public.
Sinn Fein’s public position must reflect the gravity of this situation.
The absence of Deputy First Minister and the party’s Stormont leader, Martin McGuinness, can partially explain the muffled response from the party to date.
But that can’t last.
Any sense that the republican party is closing ranks in an attempt to spare the DUP’s blushes will be immensely damaging for Sinn Fein, further feeding the narrative that they are the diminutive player in an unequal partnership at Stormont.
As Arlene once said, detail is important.
This time, Sinn Fein must hold Arlene’s feet to the fire.