This is a magnificent book by one of Ireland’s finest journalists. It is a shocking work, and raises profound and troubling questions about the future of government in Northern Ireland. It is also, for all that it inevitably has to dwell on boilers, sheds, and civil servants, an absolute page-turner.
Sam McBride’s forensic investigation into the scandal of the Renewable Heating Initiative (RHI) becomes a devastating exposé of the political dynamics and moral culture of the regime at Stormont during the years of mandatory powersharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin. His verdict? “Rank dysfunctionality.” The reader is left appalled. Hope and history do not rhyme in this saga of what McBride calls at one point “feckless profligacy – or worse”.
In November 2015 the then DUP first minister at the Northern Ireland executive, Peter Robinson, announced that he and his ministers would resign, temporarily, and in rota, as a protest against Sinn Féin’s continued participation in government. This was after police indicated that the IRA had been involved in a murder that summer in Belfast.
Robinson did not, however, want to leave the shop and its till unattended. In order to ensure that “nationalists and republicans are not able to take financial and other decisions that may be detrimental to Northern Ireland” he appointed the then finance minister, Arlene Foster, as caretaker first minister. She pledged to protect “the community” from “rogue Sinn Féin or renegade SDLP ministers.”
The RHI, which Foster had, as minister for the enterprise, trade and investment, introduced in 2012 and set to run for 20 years, was by this stage wildly out of control.
It was three years since the consumer watchdog Ofgem had warned about its flaws. It was two years since Foster had been personally contacted by a whistleblower who spelled out the perverse incentive at the heart of the scheme which would become known as “burn-to-earn” and “cash-for-ash”.
And while Stormont ministers, including Foster, would later claim they had not realised it, the fact that they had invented a money-making machine was being spotted in marts and boardrooms all over the North.
A scheme which was meant to protect the environment led to the wilful wasting of energy, empty barns and empty churches roasting hot with open windows, egg collectors at poultry farms complaining they were so sweltered they had to change their clothes several times during a shift.
McBride notes that the legislation enabling the Northern scheme was copied and pasted from legislation already introduced in Britain – except that the 107 words dealing with cost controls were cut. When problems inevitably arose, instead of introducing cost controls, the department of enterprise, trade and investment expanded the RHI.
When it became clear that costs were unsustainable, officials called on the new minister, Jonathan Bell, to take urgent action. The matter was not dealt with until September 2015, when a further delay was introduced. In the interim, Foster’s personal adviser, and one of the DUP’s most trusted aides, Andrew Crawford, had forwarded a confidential ministerial submission warning of looming cost controls to some of his relatives.
By the time limited controls were introduced there had been a huge spike in applications to the scheme. Between September and November applications had doubled. The following month it emerged that contrary to what had been presumed at Stormont, the British treasury was not going to foot the bill. The overspend would have to be covered by the Northern Ireland executive. The people of Northern Ireland would have to pay.
This was devastating news – to the DUP in particular but also to Sinn Féin. As McBride notes, “although the parties were diametrically opposed on many issues, they wholeheartedly agreed on a form of economic nationalism. As Irish republicans it was obvious that Sinn Féin – a party grown out of a terrorist organisation, which only a few years earlier had explicitly waged economic, as well as human, war on the UK – would seek to get every possible penny out of London.
“And in that mission they found willing allies in the DUP. Under Ian Paisley, and then Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster, the DUP’s unionism was infused with Ulster nationalism. The party prided itself on extracting what it could from London...”
Two months after Foster’s sectarian rogues and renegades barb, Crawford tipped off contacts in the Moy Park poultry company that the decision had been taken to shut the scheme down. This contributed to another spike in applications as Moy Park, in McBride’s words, “piled in.” By the time RHI was closed in March 2016, it was set to cost well over a billion pounds. The overspend was estimated at £500 million, perhaps more. Some individuals had made fortunes. The book suggests that Moy Park, a massively wealthy multinational company based in Brazil, was indirectly to be a massive beneficiary.
At the same time austerity measures introduced because there was supposedly a shortage of available public funding were causing misery to the poorest citizens of the North, while cuts to health and education services left hospitals, social services, schools and voluntary sector organisations struggling to cope.
McBride notes he was motivated to pursue the story because a relative who had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal illness had, instead of receiving urgent assistance, been put on a waiting list.
McBride is an elegant writer with an eye for the bizarre. Burned includes dark-suited evangelicals praying over Minister Bell as he prepares to go on BBC Northern Ireland to dish the dirt on DUP colleagues. (The level of feuding within the DUP is astonishing).
It has Bell haggling with Moy Park over the size of a free turkey it was willing to offer him at Christmas.
It describes how highly paid DUP special adviser Stephen Brimstone was able to shower with RHI-heated water courtesy of a special pipe he had laid from a shed, where he had installed a boiler meaning he could avail of the higher, non-domestic rate of subsidy.
It has Sinn Féin finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir scurrying off to consult at least one former IRA leader about political decisions.
It has Sinn Féin and the DUP gaining the compliance of some of the North’s most senior civil servants in the obviously unacceptable practice of failing to keep records and minutes of key meetings.
Ó Muilleoir set up a public inquiry under Sir Patrick Coghlin in 2017. McBride’s daily reports from this in the Belfast “Newletter”, where he is political editor, were riveting.
His book is far more than an account of Coghlin and his team’s exemplary work. The flames of Burned spare no one. The DUP fares worst. Foster comes out badly. She showed “little inclination to be either accountable or responsible for what had gone on with RHI until forced to confront the issue”.
McBride sought and was refused interviews with key DUP figures, including Foster. His written questions provoked a solicitor’s letter threatening to sue if there were inaccuracies, on behalf of Foster, Robinson, party CEO and longtime power behind the throne Timothy Johnstone, Crawford and former finance minister Mervyn Storey. McBride is at pains to point out that those who assisted him in his research were DUP people.
The DUP MP Ian Paisley Junior recently called McBride “incredibly immature, intellectually weak and a simplistic fellow”. There was an outcry and he apologised.
This book shows McBride to be incredibly politically mature, intellectually powerful and a highly sophisticated fellow. He is fair, even-handed, and generous in acknowledging the work of other journalists, like the BBC’s Conor Spackman and Stephen Nolan.
Something is rotten in the state of Northern Ireland. Whatever is needed, it is not the return of institutions run in the way McBride depicts. The young Northerners who recently demonstrated in their thousands for action to tackle climate change deserve a lot better.