Ex-NI minister was ‘overruled’ on renewable heat scheme

Jonathan Bell says Arlene Foster overruled wish to end plan with potential £400m overspend

A former DUP minister has claimed that he was pressurised by First Minister Arlene Foster to keep the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive scheme open for an additional two weeks even though he wanted to shut down the costly programme.

Jonathan Bell, a former minister of enterprise, trade and investment, told the BBC Nolan Show on Thursday night that he faced interference when he sought to shut down the renewable heating scheme which could result in an overspend of £400 million over the next 20 years.

The scheme was flawed because unlike a more restricted British model it did not have a cap on usage and provided overgenerous subsidies.

In November corrections were applied so that it was in line with the more controlled British system. However, subsequently officials saw that the scheme would prove astronomically costly and advised that it be shut down altogether.


Mr Bell said that in January this year he sought to close down the entire scheme but that Ms Foster insisted that it be held open for another two weeks.

“In the strongest terms both in volume and in force Arlene Foster as First Minister overruled me and told me to keep the scheme open,” he said.

In the end, he said, he was overruled and the scheme was kept open for an additional two weeks. He said he acted “under the orders of the First Minister” in extending the scheme for two weeks.

Party censure

Ms Foster indicated before the programme was broadcast that Mr Bell would face party censure for breaking party ranks. “I think he has stepped outside of the party lines, he has not communicated with me in any way recently, so it’ll be a matter now for party officers as to which action they take,” she said.

On Monday she is to make a "full statement" to the Northern Assembly which has been called back from its Christmas recess. "I am very much looking forward to the truth coming out because I have absolutely nothing to hide," Ms Foster told the Impartial Reporter.

“Unfortunately to date there has been 10 per cent fact and 90 per cent spin in relation to this story, so it’s important the facts get out there and I am looking forward to doing that on Monday,” she added.

Mr Bell was the DETI Minister from May 2015 to May this year succeeding Ms Foster who took over the finance department. Ms Foster as First Minister did not reappoint Mr Bell as a Minister in the new Northern executive former after the Northern Assembly elections in May.

Mr Bell denied he was acting in order to try to force Ms Foster to stand down as First Minister. “Nothing, with God as my judge, could be further from the truth,” he said.

The truth

Mr Bell told Thursday night's Nolan programme that his disclosures would cost him his political career but that nonetheless he had to tell the truth.

"My political career is finished, you are going to be ruined for telling the truth," he said. "I have had to do one of the most difficult things I have had to do in my life ... and tell the public of Northern Ireland the truth, to shine a light onto what has occurred and to deal with a major problem."

The Strangford Assembly member said that "people tell me if you step outside the box, if you put your head above the parapet, it will be shot off."

“I believe that God doesn’t punish people who tell the truth, so let’s see how it plays out. My only aim is that the truth is told, I have now told it,” he said.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times