The long overdue £14million RHI report was released on Friday and will be debated by Stormont MLA’s today, but as Kieran Allen highlights, the contents are a whitewash.
The report into the North’s ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal is a complete whitewash. Conducted by Sir Patrick Coghlin, a pillar of the establishment, it states that ‘corrupt or malicious activity on the part of official was not the cause of what we went wrong’. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Renewable Heat Initiative was a scheme whereby producers of non-domestic heat were given a subsidy if they switched to renewable forms of energy such as biomass. The problem was that the subsidy was higher than the cost of the fuel. If you kept heating a building 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and left the windows open – you made more money!
The Democratic Unionist Party were the main instigators of the scheme. Party leader, Arlene Foster, was the original Minister in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, responsible for establishing the scheme. The Department was then handed over to another DUP Minister, Jonathan Bell, who eventually spilled the beans because he thought he was going to be shafted.
The DUP is a highly centralized party that is controlled by Special Advisors who surround its Ministers. At times paid over €90,000 a year these ‘spads’, as they are known, played a role in ensuring that no cost controls were imposed on the scheme. One of the advisors, Andrew Crawford, who worked closely with Foster had relatives, who between them had 11 RHI boilers, which pulled in €6 million. Another, advisor, Stephen Brimstone, benefitted from the scheme – but so too did his parents in law and his brother. Collectively, the DUP spads, senior civil servants and MLAs ensured that the scheme stayed open for as long as possible even when they knew that it was just ‘cash for ash’.
The main beneficiary of the RHI scheme was Moy Park chickens. This is owned by a huge Brazilian conglomerate, JBS, which has sold it to one of its subsidiaries, Pilgrim’s Pride. JBS is renowned for its corrupt activities and two of its key executives, Joesley and Saud Batista, served six month in jail in Brazil for corrupt payments to politicians. The company had bribed 1,829 politicians from across the political spectrum to obtain favours.
By the time RHI was shut, 943 of the 1,526 poultry houses owned by Moy Park farmers were heated under the scheme. But as the cost of this heating was subsidized by the taxpayers, the company cut the percentage of heating for which it had to pay these farmers. The RHI scheme, thus, constituted a form of state aid to Moy Park which circumvented EU state aid rules.
If the DUP were the main instigators and operators of the scheme, Sinn Fein was, at best, negligent or, at worst, in on the act. Michelle 0’ Neill was Minister for Agriculture while the scheme was in operation and her department advertised it heavily. She claims to have been unaware of the flaws until February 2016 when it was shut down. When the scandal broke, Sinn Fein refused to vote no confidence in Foster and did not back the Foster Must Go protests organised by People Before Profit in Belfast and Derry – the pressure from which, it was reported at the time, was a big factor in Sinn Féin’s move to collapse the Stormont Assembly.
A state based on weak capitalism and patronage
The one area which Coghlin’s inquiry got right was his insinuation that the Northern state itself was dysfunctional. He recommended that there be:
‘…a rigorous process to determine whether the Northern Ireland devolved administration has (or is prepared to assign) the necessary skills and resources to deliver the policy safely and competently.’
In other words, was it even capable of operating as a state?
This is a remarkable finding that gets to the heart of the matter, in ways that Coghlin might not have anticipated. But it is relevant question in a whole host of ways.
In the past, the DUP donned the mantle of evangelical Protestantism to claim that the South was a corrupt little Catholic state where business people greased the palms of sinful politicians. They failed to mention that this corruption was an intrinsic part of a weak form of capitalism that relied on state support. Yet the same processes that drove the South into a corrupt relationship with business are now visible also in the North.
Parties like the DUP need a system of patronage to reward their business supporters in the hope that this reaches down into the working class. The state that the DUP and Sinn Fein preside over is a weak one, at the mercy of giant corporations like Moy Park who use blackmail and other inducement to get their way.
The specific form that Northern state takes under power sharing makes the hidden links between the business elite and the political elite more possible. One of the most striking features that emerged from the scandal is that no minutes are kept between top civil servants, Ministers and their special advisors. This means that there can be no trace of efforts to help companies like Moy Park. By contrast, the Stormont Executive employs 160 staff in its press office, more than all journalists in Belfast.
Why the focus on transmitting a public message, while retaining intense secrecy about the state’s own operations? The reason is that it suits both the DUP and Sinn Féin who have taken over the management of a sectarian state. They fight periodically in public and whip up communal tensions against each other. But behind the scenes, they strike deals and do deals with big business.
The old sectarian state that was run by big house Unionism has been replaced by a new form of managed sectarianism that delights businesses who want to siphon off from the public purse.
By contrast working people suffer. 1500 people die in year in Northern Ireland because of lack of proper heating. Yet while they die, those in the know and their business networks benefit from massive hand-outs.
We have two sick, corrupt states in Ireland – we need to sweep them aside.