Calls for Foster to resign over ‘cash for ash’ letter to banks
North’s first minister encouraged investment in botched RHI scheme in 2013
Stormont’s first minister, Arlene Foster. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Arlene Foster in facing fresh calls for her to resign as Northern Ireland’s first minister after it emerged she wrote to banks encouraging support for the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.
Ms Foster was department of enterprise, trade and investment (DETI) when the botched scheme, known now as ‘cash for ash’, was set up in 2012.
The overgenerous terms of the scheme is expected to cost around £1.2 billion, with the Northern Executive, and therefore the taxpayer, accountable for £400-£500 million.
Its aim was to move farmers and businesses away from fossil fuels to green heat methods such as burning wood pellets. A failure to cap usage meant those signed up to the 20-year deal receive £1.60 in subsidies for every £1 spent.
In a letter to the Ulster Bank dated January 7th, 2013, Ms Foster said she was “writing to encourage you to look favourably on approaches from businesses that are seeking finance to install renewable technologies”.
“The government support, on offer through the incentive schemes, is reliable, long term and offers a good return on investment.”
Ms Foster sought to reassure them of the secure nature of RHI funding.
The letter said: “Tariffs are ‘grandfathered’ providing certainty for investors by setting a guaranteed support level for projects for their lifetime in a scheme, regardless of future reviews.”
On Friday, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said while Ms Foster has rejected any suggestion of incompetence and wrongdoing on her part, the letter makes it clear that she “was across every important detail, or ‘jot and tittle’ of RHI, and wrote to the banks to inform them that in terms of the 20 years of the RHI subsidy, the only way was up, in that the levels were guaranteed to be adjusted only to account for inflation”.
‘Spun a web’
He said: “Mrs Foster has not only failed to do the honourable thing, by accepting the consequences of Ministerial Responsibility and resigning, she has spun a web in which she now finds herself trapped, ensuring a legacy of debt to be paid by children yet to be born, and leaving her reputation as a competent minister in tatters.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood believes Ms Foster has “lost all credibility” as well as the confidence of the Assembly and the public.
He again called for her to stand aside pending a public inquiry with full powers to compel witnesses and evidence.
“All parties, and particularly Sinn Féin, must now clearly put on record their support for such an inquiry to uncover the truth about this fiasco,” he said.
“I am again urging the first minister; abide by the will of the Assembly. Listen to the will of the public. Stand aside and begin to restore faith in our institutions.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said the “grandfathered” nature of the RHI terms and conditions makes it more difficult for the Executive to “retreat from the contractual commitments made” and save the cost to the public purse.
“With each new revelation Arlene Foster is on ever shrinking ground,” he said.
“The need for a full judicial inquiry is more imperative than ever.”
The Assembly is in recess and will reconvene in the middle of January.
Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken said the letter demonstrated the “urgent need” for all documents related to the RHI to be made public.
“It is clear that Arlene Foster wrote to banks and lending institutions to vouch for the validity of the now scandalised Renewable Heat Incentive scheme,” he said.
He said: “Given that someone in the Executive was flying a kite last week about the closure of the scheme, perhaps Arlene Foster can explain how they’re going to do that given that she herself wrote to banks and lending institutions to assure them about the tariffs and the consistency of support over 20 years?
“It’s another fine mess for a scandal prone Executive, and Ms Foster is right at the centre of this one.”