RHI laid bare

An estimated overspend of up to £700 million; a bombshell BBC interview and the subsequent collapse of the Stormont Executive has made the ‘cash-for-ash’ controversy one of the most damaging scandals to hit Northern Irish politics. However, an independent inquiry has exposed instances of code breaching and departmental malpractice which long predate the Renewable Heat Incentive, writes Niall Coleman.

Over 18 months have passed since Jonathan Bell’s infamous interview with Stephen Nolan, which set Stormont along a trajectory towards political scandal and eventual collapse. However, the fallout from the RHI controversy has yet to settle, with key decisions left in limbo in the absence of sitting ministers. The implications of the current political impasse shine a spotlight not only on the failings of the botched energy scheme, but on significant failings by officials, their special advisors and civil servants.

Such failings extend far and beyond the advent of the Renewable Heat Incentive. Indeed, evidence recounted as part of the RHI Inquiry suggests that whilst a January 2015 attempt to reapprove the scheme was overlooked due to “administrative oversight”, an Audit Office report attributed “serious systemic failings” to abuse of the scheme, with then DUP Economy Minister Simon Hamilton acknowledging an “incredible” cost to taxpayers of “hundreds of millions of pounds”.

However, it was not until senior members of Ofgem E-Serve appeared before the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee that a clearer picture began to emerge of these failings. That is despite a whistle-blower’s claim that only “five minutes of research” was required to expose the failings of those involved in setting up and promoting the scheme – over two years after then Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster was allegedly informed of the issue.

Foster’s denial of any wrongdoing came immediately, claiming that she had “nothing to hide”. Meanwhile, political opponents accused the current DUP leader of “shirking responsibility” for the flawed scheme.

The allowance of the scheme to continue for two weeks following Bell’s warnings created a spike in applications, with 1,946 applications approved under the non-domestic RHI scheme in total. The three-month period between September and November 2015 is notable: 984 applications were received during this time, after officials announced plans to cut the subsidy but before the change took effect. This suggests that businesses and organisations were aware of the lucrative profits to be made in the scheme. Furthermore, findings of an independent audit found issues in half of the 300 installations inspected, with 14 of those falling into the most serious category, where fraud was suspected. A spike in applications combined with cases of suspected fraud have supported a public narrative which suggests that there was a race to exploit the Renewable Heat Incentive.

Cash for ash

Conflicting testimonies have featured throughout hearings of the RHI Inquiry. Indeed, the accounts given by several DUP SPADs, including Timothy Cairns, Andrew Crawford and DUP Chief Executive Timothy Johnston conflict with the accounts of then Minister, Jonathan Bell, who claimed that senior DUP advisors were preventing the closure of the scheme. Crawford and Johnston denied any interference with the closure, as well as any involvement in altering papers concerning Arlene Foster, as further alleged by Bell. Foster has been steadfast in her defence of the accused SPADs, insisting that if such things occurred, “it wasn’t on my say-so”.

Foster’s reaction to calls for her resignation suggests that the circumstances surrounding Stormont’s collapse are not limited to the fallout of the RHI scandal. Foster originally blasted calls for her resignation as “misogynistic”, before arguing that McGuinness’ resignation was borne out of “political, not principled” reasoning. A particularly divisive election campaign ensued, which exposed deep mistrust between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

A court hearing regarding a legal decision to reduce tariff payments heard that officials responsible for setting up the scheme did so with “crass incompetence”. Foster herself encouraged lending to companies investing in biomass boilers, insisting that subsidy levels would be “reliable and long term”. Government calculations of the RHI overspend were similarly criticised as being “based on a flawed assumption”.

Burning questions

The Inquiry has raised more pertinent questions surrounding the practice of DUP officials in government. Indeed, Patrick Coghlin himself acknowledged the potential ramifications of RHI on public confidence. According to the former judge, allegations of “improper patronage” have pervaded the Inquiry, with many involved holding a “conflict of interest” because of their own, or their family member’s involvement in the scheme.

A cursory glance at evidence provided to the Inquiry reflects an intrinsic relationship between RHI applicants and DUP officials. Whilst MLA Jim Wells revealed that four members of his family installed wood pellet boilers as part of the scheme, DUP SPAD Stephen Brimstone faced an Ofgem investigation after two complaints around his use of the non-domestic scheme. However, the watchdog concluded that Brimstone was properly on the scheme. Meanwhile, David Scofield QC noted that it was “significant” that SPAD Andrew Crawford appeared to be aware of the incentive to burn wood pellets for profit. It was revealed that Crawford had three relatives who claimed 11 boilers under the RHI scheme. Crawford, however, claims that his former party have worked to “pin the blame” on him for the whole controversy.

Throughout the Inquiry, revelations have emerged surrounding the DUP’s apparent subversion of governmental protocol. DUP Chief Executive, Timothy Johnston, acknowledged that party SPADs were not always appointed according to established regulations. Johnston, formerly an advisor to Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster admitted that there had been a “drift away” from proper procedure. Furthermore, it was claimed that civil servants, SPADS and ministers were not always “on the same team” on a range of issues, including RHI. Patrick Coghlin suggested that the DUP’s subversion of established rules was done in an attempt to “centralise power”. A claim rejected by the party.

Heated conversations

Johnston’s admission of a “drift away” from established procedure in appointing SPADs is highly significant and adds yet more speculation to claims of infighting and intrigue within the DUP. Johnston conceded that there was an “element of centralisation” in the DUP’s appointment processes, which did not “comply with the letter and the spirit” of the relevant legislation that was passed regarding special advisers. Indeed, allegations of a hierarchy amongst SPADs have been made across the course of the Inquiry, with a persistent narrative which suggests a party motive to protect the reputation of the party’s Chief Executive.

The power of hindsight and an apparent inability to recollect information has been central to the testimony of Arlene Foster, who made over 40 admissions to the Inquiry in which she “didn’t know” or “didn’t recollect” key details around the heating scheme.

Beyond the appointment of senior staff, a toxic network of working relationships within the DUP has been illuminated by the Inquiry. Confidence in Jonathan Bell as a minister was repeatedly questioned, with Arlene Foster and Timothy Johnston both admitting “regret” at his appointment. Fraught relationships between Bell and his SPAD were repeatedly highlighted, with allegations of an aggressive Bell “throwing a punch” and threatening to “break the finger” of Timothy Cairns. Further claims of heated confrontations with Emma Little-Pengelly and Carla Lockhart depict a party fraught with internal tension, with the ramifications of such an environment seeping into the corridors of Stormont.

The RHI controversy has created a situation in which the spotlight shines upon the actions of one of Northern Ireland’s leading parties. However, testimonies provided to the Inquiry portray a civil service acquiescent to habits of malpractice. This was reflected in admissions from Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, who claimed that the practice of minute-taking had “lapsed”. He claimed that civil servants “got into the habit” of avoiding note-taking due to ministers’ desires to have a “safe space where they could think the unthinkable and not have it all recorded”. More significantly, Sterling admitted that the practice was also encouraged to frustrate Freedom of Information requests.

Patrick Coghlin’s description of a “total divorce” between the Departments of Agriculture and Enterprise shed further light on the failings of Northern Ireland’s civil service. The Inquiry drew attention to the lack of a paper trail in a key phase, in which officials stood accused of delaying cost controls. Furthermore, a senior civil servant also alleged that departmental officials were frequently treated as “opposition” by DUP advisors, as they frantically attempted to curb the rising costs of the heating scheme.

Smouldering issues

Pervading the entire inquiry are allegations that civil servants, SPADs and ministers refused to heed warnings that costs of the scheme were spiralling out of control. Businesswoman Jeanette O’Hagan repeatedly warned officials of companies exploiting the scheme, only to be dismissed by civil servants who claimed that the people of Northern Ireland “wouldn’t do such a thing”.

It transpired that people in Northern Ireland were, in fact, willing to do such a thing. However, much commentary from those involved with the Renewable Heat Incentive has frequently centred around the benefit of “hindsight”.

The power of hindsight and an apparent inability to recollect information has been central to the testimony of Arlene Foster, who made over 40 admissions to the Inquiry in which she “didn’t know” or “didn’t recollect” key details around the heating scheme.

The work of the Inquiry is expected to carry on for some time before it publishes its report. Until then, it is unclear if the words of Arlene Foster will withstand the heat of the RHI Inquiry.

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