Lawyer warns little in ‘cash for ash’ inquiry will be uncontentious

Idea of NI energy scheme leading to money ‘going up in smoke’ anathema to public

 David Scoffield QC giving his opening statement to the inquiry into the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme which triggered the collapse of political powersharing in Northern Ireland. Photograph: RHI Inquiry/PA Wire.

David Scoffield QC giving his opening statement to the inquiry into the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme which triggered the collapse of political powersharing in Northern Ireland. Photograph: RHI Inquiry/PA Wire.

 

Public concern over the calamitous ‘cash for ash’ scheme reached such a “fever pitch” that it contributed to the downfall of the Northern Executive and Assembly, the Renewable Heath Incentive (RHI) scheme inquiry has heard.

The idea that “money could be going up in smoke” in the scheme was a concept “anathema” to the public, a lawyer told the inquiry which began its oral hearings on Tuesday.

David Scoffield QC, senior counsel for the inquiry, said that over the course of the hearings there would be “precious little” that would be judged “uncontentious”.

Mr Scoffield referred to how the RHI scheme was a significant contributory factor to the current political stalemate in Northern Ireland.

In January the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister over DUP leader and former first minister Arlene Foster’s handling of the controversy. It led to the political impasse that several months of negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Féin have failed to resolve.

Mr Scoffield said Mr McGuinness’s resignation was “undoubtedly part of the RHI story” and that concerns about the scheme reached “such fever pitch that it struck at the very heart of our democratic institutions”.

‘Improper patronage’

He added that the controversy caught the public imagination due in part to allegations of “incompetence, corruption and improper patronage”.

“How did a relatively unexciting scheme to incentivise businesses to meet their heating needs from renewable resources come to be in the news at all, let alone be the subject of heated public debate and commentary, let alone be a contributory factor to the downfall of devolved government in Northern Ireland?”

There is no fixed time-limit on the inquiry but it is estimated that it could take a year or possibly longer to complete.

Mr Scoffield explained how the inquiry will examine how the scheme could result in an overspend of more than £500 million during its 20-year lifetime, as reported by the North’s comptroller and auditor general last year.

The RHI scheme was set up in November 2012, and run by the North’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment when Ms Foster was line minister.

The system was unlike a similar capped system in Britain which had a limit on subsidies. It was estimated that for every £1 invested by users in the RHI that they received £1.60 in subsidies.

“The notion that money might be going up in smoke that would otherwise pay for doctors, nurses, teachers, policemen and so on has been anathema to many in the public,” Mr Scoffield told the inquiry.

He said that the inquiry would not adjudicate on civil or criminal liability or pass judgments on whether applicants were legitimately using the scheme.

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said it would seek “to provide a measured, objective, independent and publicly transparent investigation” of the RHI scheme.