RHI was a colossal waste in public money, yet no action has been taken against its architects, and the results of the inquiry into the scheme remain in limbo. In this feature piece, Rebel takes a look back at the ‘cash for ash’ scandal, and some of the revelations that have emerged so far.
Over two and a half years since the Stormont Assembly collapsed due to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal, grave revelations continue to emerge. While there has been little doubt about the crooked practices surrounding the so-called ‘cash-for-ash’ scheme, recent news about its non-domestic beneficiaries—who have cost taxpayers an extra £830,000 on top of an already staggering £490million—offers a further insight into the politically motivated financial carve-ups that have helped the North’s big parties consolidate power at the head of inherently sectarian institutions.
The glaring flaws in RHI are, largely, common knowledge, but with a final report from the judicial inquiry into the scheme still pending, the full extent of the corruption and its implications are still unknown. However, worrying details have continued to emerge elsewhere; a report published by the Auditor General, Kieran Donnelly, on August 8, revealed that heat generated under the non-domestic RHI scheme fell by around 44 per cent after subsidies were cut in 2017. Evidence, he says, that heat was produced “only with a view to increasing RHI payments”. Donnelly’s findings also show abuse “in relation to past over-production of heat” in around 80 per cent of boilers inspected since July 2018.
Shocking as the Auditor General’s report might be, the widespread abuse amongst claimants suggests more than a fair amount of aggrandising winks and nudges from those who helped design RHI as well as those who, despite recognising its critical flaws, failed to take corrective action or, as in the case of Sinn Féin, successfully lobbied to keep the scheme open for two further weeks in February 2016.
A brief look at the timeline of events in the RHI debacle, coupled with an overview of the subsequent and ongoing political fallout, shines more of a light on the rotten nature of power-sharing than the DUP or, indeed, Sinn Féin might like.
RHI was launched in the North in November 2012, with tariffs set by Stormont’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI). Just months later, a whistleblower sent several emails to the then Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster, raising concerns about the scheme. During Ms Foster’s time as First Minister, when the scandal around RHI was developing, the DUP claimed her office had “no record” of the emails from that period. However, the whistleblower also previously had meetings with departmental officials, later telling the RHI inquiry that she felt “dismissed” during the discussion. Despite a follow up email sent in May 2014, the scheme was extended to the domestic sector later that year, with the full cost of this decision only coming to light now. In January 2015, DETI was to seek re-approval for RHI from the Department of Finance. This too, was conveniently overlooked, ostensibly due to “staff changes and administrative oversight”. A flood of RHI applications followed this ‘unfortunate’ blip. At best, the handling of the debacle until this point could be viewed as administrative incompetence and, at worst, a bad case of political negligence.
Evidence, however, that family members of DUP representatives and special advisers (Spads) had cashed in on RHI, suggested a more sinister and calculated motivation. There is, of course, the odious example of Arlene Foster’s Spad, Dr Andrew Crawford, whose brother and cousin had a combined total of 11 boilers. However, the sordid associations were much more widespread; fellow DUP Spad, Stephen Brimstone, was found to have installed a boiler in an empty shed adjacent to his mansion; four relatives of South Down MLA Jim Wells had installed boilers; private companies also benefited, not least Moy Park Chicken, whose links to the DUP helped it tip off producers about the lucrative scheme. Even the Orange Order got in on the act, installing RHI boilers in some of its Orange Halls.
By February 2016, whistleblowers were already alleging that RHI had overspent by millions. Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell, who replaced Arlene Foster at the head of the department nine months earlier, then announced plans to close RHI. The decision sparked a notorious row between the pair, with Mr Bell later alleging that Mrs Foster had angrily “overruled” him in a bid to keep it open.
An Audit Office investigation into RHI in the proceeding months soon uncovered “serious systemic failings”, which led to uncapped subsidy payments and cost the public hundreds of millions of pounds. The assembly’s Public Accounts Committee revealed an all-too-convenient arrangement where minutes of meetings between government officials and RHI scheme regulators went unrecorded. RHI dominated the news in the latter half of the year and implicated DUP Ministers and their SPADS, leading to an embarrassing clamour for self-preservation, with some willing to throw their colleagues under the bus to save their own skin.
DUP & Sinn Féin
In November 2016, Arlene Foster faced a vote of no-confidence for her role in the fiasco. MLAs from the SDLP, Alliance, Green Party, People Before Profit and TUV voted for the resignation of the DUP leader, who survived the vote as Sinn Féin refused to back the motion.
That Sinn Féin refused to act against the DUP on this occasion should come as no surprise. Having rightly, if belatedly, collapsed the Stormont institutions due to the ensuing RHI scandal—famously proclaiming that there would be ‘no return to the status quo’—Sinn Féin has come out of the ordeal looking relatively uncorrupted compared with their DUP counterparts, who were the main architects of the ‘burn to earn’ initiative. But they are far from faultless when it comes to RHI. Indeed, despite clear evidence of the scheme’s financial irregularities, Michelle O’Neill (now Sinn Féin deputy leader) had played an active role in promoting it during her time as agriculture minister, when her department held 58 workshops explaining the ‘benefits’ of RHI, effectively warning businesses to board the gravy train before it was too late. Ms O’Neill’s party colleague, Conor Murphy MLA, pushed to keep the scheme open for two weeks prior to its closure citing “tremendous difficulties” for those still wishing to apply party. This allowed for the installation of 289 more boilers (the highest uptake in any period). It should, perhaps, come as no surprise that the two constituencies with the most RHI boiler installation were those of Mrs Foster (Fermanagh-South Tyrone) and Mr Murphy (Newry and Armagh), leading to allegations that both were engaged in efforts to sure up their own voting base. Perhaps even less surprising is the fact that in an email to one RHI applicant, the then finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir—himself a businessowner—vowed that Sinn Féin would do their “utmost” to have “as many projects as possible green-lighted.”
After surviving the no-confidence vote, Arlene Foster continued to deny any wrongdoing in relation to RHI and refused to step aside as First Minister. By December the same year, a senior official alleged that Mrs Foster had personally fought to keep the scheme open. For his part, Jonathan Bell made a sensational public apology on TV—kneeling in prayer before his emotional mea culpa moment—and accusing DUP SPAD, Dr Andrew Crawford, and the party’s Chief Executive, Timothy Johnston, of “not allowing” RHI’s closure. As the crisis developed, Sinn Féin held a meeting at the Felons Club in West Belfast in January, when it became apparent that party activists had reached the end of their tether. Calls from within the room to bring down the political institutions were followed by the resignation of the then Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness just 48 hours later, thus collapsing the Assembly.
Despite having earlier refused to call for a public inquiry into RHI, Sinn Féin, no doubt spurned by public and political pressure, performed a U-turn on the matter, announcing the inquiry, which has been chaired by Sir Patrick Coghlin, a retired member of the Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland.
A preliminary hearing for the RHI Inquiry got underway at Stormont in April 2017 with the public inquiry getting underway in November that year. While there were revelations about RHI staffing shortages, inept officials and serious administrative errors, evidence heard during the inquiry to date has done little to allay concerns of a conspiracy.
During his evidence, Jonathan Bell reiterated his claims that DUP Spads had intervened to keep RHI open. The nefarious actions of DUP advisers would become recurrent throughout. Emails produced during the inquiry showed that Andrew Crawford (aforementioned) had written to Mr Bell’s Spad, Timothy Cairns, predicting a “spike” in RHI applications due to tariff changes. Dr Crawford’s emails also indicated that Moy Park chicken producers were being incentivised to heat empty sheds. It is no mere coincidence that the inquiry later revealed he was providing insider knowledge about RHI tariffs to the company and had furtively removed reference to the poultry industry from a paper seeking the scheme’s closure.
Outrageous as Dr Crawford’s duplicity might seem, the DUP man seemed to revel in his role; the inquiry heard from Senior Civil Servant Andrew McCormick how Dr Crawford had told him “we could fill our boots”, as he (mistakenly) believed the British Treasury was footing the bill for RHI. Stephen Brimstone—the DUP Spad of empty shed and boiler infamy—was also at the centre of the scandal. The inquiry was told how a senior figure at Ofgem—which administered RHI on behalf of the government—had advised a colleague not to share an audit of Mr Brimstone’s property with the PSNI.
The corrupt practices surrounding of RHI are so blatant that they are beyond the need for inference, but the inquiry into the scheme has also raised serious questions about democracy and decision-making at Stormont. The nebulous relationships between DUP ministers and their Spads also came into focus during the inquiry. It was suggested during evidence that, although unelected, some Spads had greater authority than the ministers who appointed them, hence allowing critical and costly RHI interventions from the former. If these relationships were not concerning enough, added evidence of DUP nepotism also emerged. DUP ministers were found to have centrally hired publicly paid Spads from amongst its party membership, despite signing papers to the contrary.
After 114 days of public evidence, the shocking, infuriating, and often comic slew of revelations from the RHI Inquiry would virtually require their own treatise, but in his summation, Michael Woods, who headed a departmental audit into RHI, told the inquiry that the oversight in the scheme was “worst” he had ever seen. Arlene Foster’s admission that she tabled legislation to establish RHI without first reading it might go some way to explain why.
As yet, the RHI inquiry has not confirmed a completion date for its final report, which will include recommendations for future governance. In the interim, talks aimed at restoring the institutions were convened and collapsed again, grassroots movements had emerged and, in demanding their rights, forced a recalibration on the part of both parties. Sinn Féin adopted some of these demands (Irish Language Act, Marriage Equality, legacy mechanisms) as ‘red lines’, calling for the implementation of measures included in the Good Friday and St. Andrew’s Agreements. The DUP position has, of course, been to oppose these measures at all costs, relying on the sectarian vote.
Meanwhile the DUP’s role in the RHI scandal has virtually become a non-issue as far as the political talks are concerned. Long gone are the demands that Arlene Foster must go before an executive is restored. It is far from inconceivable, therefore, that the DUP and Sinn Féin could strike a deal before the RHI Inquiry is completed and its prospective recommendations would have no consequence in the meantime.
The RHI affair and the resulting fallout is by no means concluded, but it has served as a stark example of how fiscal control can be used for political gain and how harmful social and economic policies are often ignored or hidden in the sectarian state.
In the absence of an Assembly, a further corruption scandal has emerged from Stormont in the form of the multi-million-pound Social Investment Fund (SIF), which the Auditor General said has “parallels” with RHI. SIF was set up by the Executive in 2011 to fund community projects but has been found to lack transparency, leading to serious concerns about misappropriation of funds. The November 2018 Audit Office report noted several unreported conflicts of interest. The result has been that Sinn Féin and the DUP have managed to use funds to garner political support by funding certain projects within their respective communities, including those involving their party members.
Whether there will be a public inquiry into SIF remains to be seen, but the foremost lesson to be learnt from the scandal will be much the same as RHI, and it is a simple one: These failures are systemic and, at the very least, will require a radical overhaul of the political system, and the urgent development of a much needed alternative to the failed politics of unionism and nationalism.