Michelle O’Neill dismisses any complicity in cash-for-ash scandal

SF’s new Northern leader and ex-agriculture minister insists fault in affair lies with DUP

It emerged in newspaper reports on Friday that the Department of Agriculture, when headed up by Michelle O’Neill (above), had organised scores of workshops for farmers interested in the Renewable Heat Incentive  scheme and highlighted its financial benefits. File photograph: Getty Images

It emerged in newspaper reports on Friday that the Department of Agriculture, when headed up by Michelle O’Neill (above), had organised scores of workshops for farmers interested in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme and highlighted its financial benefits. File photograph: Getty Images

 

Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill has dismissed suggestions she is complicit in any way over the botched green energy programme which could cost taxpayers up to half a billion pounds.

The party’s new leader in Northern Ireland has insisted fault in the so-called “cash for ash” affair lies with the DUP.

Michelle O’Neill is Stormont’s outgoing Minister for Health but was previously minister for agriculture.

It emerged in newspaper reports on Friday that the Department of Agriculture, when headed up by Ms O’Neill, had organised scores of workshops for farmers interested in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme and highlighted its financial benefits.

There has been public outcry about the over-generous terms of the scheme, aimed at moving farmers and businesses away from fossil fuels to renewable energy such as wood pellets.

Those signed up to the scheme are expected to receive £1.60 (€1.88) in subsidies for every £1 spent.

Of some 2,000 signed up to the non-domestic RHI scheme, over half are farm businesses, including a significant number of poultry farmers.

Suspected heating of empty shed

There is no suggestion they have acted improperly, but a number of cases of suspected improper use are being investigated, including the heating of an empty shed around the clock.

Ms O’Neill has said she was unaware of how costly the scheme was until February last year. She claimed that despite the Department of Agriculture also promoting it, former first minister Arlene Foster was responsible as then minister for the department of enterprise, which oversaw the rollout.

In a statement, Ms O’Neill said when she was minister for agriculture her department was involved in promoting events around the RHI. It promoted “a wide range of grant schemes for farmers” mostly run by the EU.

“I did not attend any of these events,” she said. She said “at that time there were no particular concerns” about the scheme.

When Sinn Féin became aware of concerns the party “took decisive action to end it”, she said.

The DUP has said the accusations by Sinn Féin at Ms Foster, over responsibilty for the departmental failure to identify flaws in the scheme, could also apply to Ms O’Neill.

A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture said a series of events was facilitated to outline a range of renewable energy options for farmers and the rural sector. He said officials from a number of departments and organisations provided input for these events.

Meanwhile, Ms Foster has said she is confident her former adviser Andrew Crawford, who resigned last week, will be cleared of wrongdoing by the judicial inquiry into the scheme.

Last week Dr Crawford was named by civil servant Dr Andrew McCormick at the Public Accounts Committee as the special adviser who had allegedly used his influence to delay the reduction of the scheme’s excessively high tariffs.

Ms Foster has faced criticism for not outlining the specifics of Dr McCormick’s concerns when she addressed the Assembly on December 19th.

On Friday Ms Foster defended her position, saying it would have been wrong to have named a person on “hearsay evidence”.

Dr Crawford resigned claiming he did not want to be a “distraction”, but believes the public inquiry would prove he “acted with complete integrity”.

The fallout from the scandal caused the government to collapse and an election has been called for March 2nd.