“That the 14th December agreement between the DUP and SF had fallen apart by Monday remains unexplained”

Probably the best forensic account of the long arc of the RHI scandal is by Slugger reader and commenter The Dissenter over on his own blog. It’s a useful corrective to much of the current (intensely popular) short arc narrative.

In particular, he links this UTV report by Vicky Hawthorne from July 2016 when almost every issue raised by the Spotlight programme before Christmas was reported on in two minutes.

This long perspective on where the government was by the time Spotlight reported is important, for two reasons The Dissenter highlights. Firstly:

Something triggered the NIAO Report. That goes back to January 2016 when an anonymous ‘whistleblower’ sent a letter to the OFMDFM. Yes, the first recorded and known whistleblower went to OFMDFM, the Office of Arlene Foster (DUP) and Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein).

From the outset both the DUP and Sinn Fein had knowledge and from the office of OFMDFM were, presumably, together with the Department of the Economy, fully supportive of the NIAO review.

The point here is that the issues around RHI, at least generally, would have already been known to both the DUP and Sinn Fein going into the May 2016 Assembly elections.

With the NIAO report probably already underway, RHI was clearly going to be an issue that would quickly make its presence felt on the agenda for the new Executive.

Post election, the Assembly too was picking up on the issue through the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) with a series of hearings starting in September – the minutes are online, though quite a bit of the hearings on RHI seem to be in closed session.

Nevertheless, the PAC has been slowly expanding on what the NIAO had reported.

The politics of the current position, however, rests on the relationships within the Government and between the DUP and Sinn Fein Ministers in particular.

On that point, it would certainly seem to be the case that RHI was the subject of discussions within the Executive, certainly between the OFMDFM, the Department of the Economy and the Department of Finance…

And secondly:

…you might have the impression that before the BBC Spotlight airing of the NIAO report (published four months earlier) little or no attention was being given to addressing the outworking of the RHI Scheme within the Executive.

Sometimes the impression is given that the DUP had buried the issue of RHI in the Department of the Economy and that no-one else was expending energy on the fallout from RHI, because no-one else knew. That would be wrong.

The OFMDFM knew, because that is where the letter landed from the whistleblower that indicated widespread abuse of the scheme. Obviously, the Economy Department knew because it was chasing through on the PWC investigation that it had initiated.

We know too that in at least one other Department discussion on the consequences of the RHI Scheme were consuming long hours.

We know this from a short exchange in the Finance Committee which, although the hearing was on something unrelated, brought the following outburst from the Finance Minister with respect to RHI:

  • That the Finance Minister believed responsibility for the fiasco lay within the period Jonathan Bell’s tenure as DETI Minister.
  • That the Finance Minister, along with many others, was now working on how to address the £20 million (20 year) annual cost that would now impact on the forthcoming budget.

He’s provided a useful précis of the Minister’s remarks in October 2016:

He goes on to remark:

…it seems odd for the issue of the First Minister stepping aside to have become such an issue for Sinn Fein.

Indeed, from this exchange, with all that effort in the background, it seems unsurprising that the DUP and Sinn Fein had an agreed way forward on the 14th December 2016, which was planned to be presented to the Assembly in a special session on the 19th December.

It also makes sense as promotion of the Scheme was enthusiastically supported by Sinn Fein’s Minister Michelle O’Neill’s DARD in co-operation it would seem with DETI. Both DUP and Sinn Fein seem to have ‘invested’ considerable political capital in the scheme.

That the 14th December agreement on the way forward between the DUP and SF had fallen apart by Monday is an oddity, and one which remains unexplained.

Do go and read the whole thing.

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

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