An Evening with the Borgias was how one Facebook friend put it. Well, perhaps not quite that bad but since DUP on DUP action is such an uncommon sight on NI television, last night’s Nolan Special was revealing in parts.
One of the things it revealed is that former Minster Bell has been Stephen Nolan’s ‘Deep Throat’ for some of this story. Most of his revelations centre around his own brief tenure in the department at the core of the RHI affair, once the problem had been crystallised.
As such it’s more about who left the Titanic and in what order than why DETI hit a fiscal iceberg.
Bell’s tenure began when a joint review of the performance of the RHI scheme should have already taken place under Bell’s predecessor at Enterprise Trade and Industry, Arlene Foster.
Indeed it should have been part of Foster’s new department (Finance and Personnel) procedures for further approval of RHI.
The wobble appears to have come in June 2015 when Bell was told directly that scheme was not only flawed but growing rapidly and getting out of control, since it was already committed to paying out more money to claimants than it was costing them to feed their new biomass boilers.
As highlighted by the Comptrollers and Auditor General’s report in July this year, the policy design itself was faulty from the start:
The problem seems to spring from the Department’s own business case laid out and finalised in June 2012 when the tariff was set without the safety nets. So why did Ms Foster’s department not see the problem sooner?
Well, right up until last year, there was a larger underspend on the project: £3.5 million out of £4 million set aside in 2012-13; £5.35 million out of £7 million in 2013-14; and then it narrows right down to £4.08 million out of £12 million in 2014-15.
You can see why the panic bells must have been pretty loud as Minister Bell takes office since the take up of the scheme is now beginning to speed up exponentially. Most of the argument in the programme appears to be about how and when to fix the problem.
On the 8th of September last year, Bell announced an amended scheme to be brought in on 18th November. It was in this period that the scheme sharply spiked. The Comptroller and Auditor General explains:
…almost as many applications being received in those seven weeks as had been made in the previous 34 months since the scheme began. The expected cost of the applications made during this seven week period will be around £24 million annually for each of the next twenty years.
Now that’s under Bell’s tenure. It’s not clear to me whether announcing the amendment so far in advance to the changes was a strict necessity or just a precautionary measure. Either way, there’s very little doubt about the consequences.
It may be that he’s feeling guilty that it happened on his watch. But he might have saved himself the trouble, since there’s plenty of blame to go round. Despite protests from the First Minister this leaky NI policy boat left port with bow doors wide open under Arlene’s watch.
A good bout of old-fashioned Catholic confession might have served the DUP better than this runaround. Instead, Arlene finds herself intemperately repeating the fact that no one told her until it was too late. [Is that part of her day job? – Ed]
And she did herself no favours in accusing the relatively mild-mannered former social worker of trying to physically intimidate her. Nor did her party in obfuscating the nature and content of the whistleblower material mentioned in the NAO report.
The substantive whistleblower material was contained in an anonymous email received by OFMdFM in January this year. That material is the subject of a review jointly commissioned by OFGEN and the new Department of the Economy.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty