Farmers had issued warning over NI heat scheme

Sinn Féin keeps pressure on Arlene Foster to resign as First Minister over ‘cash for ash’

A farming group warned the North’s Department of Enterprise of an “imminent” increase in applications for the scheme at the centre of the “cash for ash” controversy two months before the spike was recorded.

The fallout from the renewable heat incentive scheme, which could result in a £400 million (€470 million) overspend in the next 20 years for the Northern authorities, has continued with further calls for DUP First Minister Arlene Foster to stand aside over her role in the debacle.

It emerged on Tuesday that, in July 2015, the Ulster Farmers' Union held a meeting with the department to warn of an impending surge in applications to the scheme, which subsidised businesses and farmers who switched from fossil-fuel heating to biomass systems such as wood-burning boilers.

Flawed system

A total of 1,946 applicants were approved for the scheme, but there was a spike of 984 applications in the three months from September to November 2015 after officials announced they were correcting the flawed uncapped system but before that change took effect.

Last February, the union issued a press release in which its rural enterprise chairman, Gary Hawkes, complained about how the department was ending the scheme.

While the scheme was introduced in 2012, when Ms Foster was the minister for enterprise, her successor, Jonathan Bell, held the office at the time of the warning from the union and when the spike in applications occurred.

Ms Foster and Mr Bell have accused each other of being culpable of failings over the botched scheme which saw users receive a £1.60 subsidy for every £1 they spent on their green heating systems.

In reference to the meeting with the union, the Department of the Economy, which is now responsible for the scheme, said it recognised “with hindsight, that earlier introduction of cost controls and disincentives to excess use of the scheme might well have reduced or prevented the spike in applications” which forced its sudden suspension last February.

Investigation

Sinn Féin Minister for Health Michelle O’Neill on Tuesday called on Ms Foster to stand down pending an investigation into the scheme.

“Sinn Féin believes the quickest and most cost-effective way to achieve this is a thorough, independent investigation which is robust, transparent, time-framed and led by a senior judicial figure from outside the jurisdiction and with the power to compel witnesses and documents,” she said.

Notwithstanding this demand, Sinn Féin has come in for criticism from the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance for falling short of calling for a public inquiry.

DUP MP for East Derry Gregory Campbell said Ms Foster would not be stepping aside. "I don't think Arlene Foster really has any pressure on her from within the party or the unionist community," he told UTV.

“The more Sinn Féin press for her to go, the more unionists will be saying we need a strong woman and a strong First Minister.”

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times

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