Cash for ash inquiry report: Why the findings are so important

Renewable heating grants scheme could yet cost the Northern taxpayer up to £490m

Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster Foster admitted that she did not read the legislation behind the Renewable Heat Incentive. File photograph: The Irish Times

Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster Foster admitted that she did not read the legislation behind the Renewable Heat Incentive. File photograph: The Irish Times

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More than three years since the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry was established in January 2017 the chairman, Patrick Coghlin, is to publish his findings at 2pm in Stormont on Friday, March 13th.

The so-called “cash for ash” scheme brought down the Northern Executive and Assembly, tarnished the reputation of Northern Ireland politicians and civil service and could cost the Northern taxpayer up to half a billion pounds.

So, what is the background to the scandal?

Q&A:

Friday, March 13th, unlucky for some, is a big day in Northern Ireland?

Yes, at 2pm, at Stormont in east Belfast senior retired judge Patrick Coghlin will publish his long-anticipated report into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, also known as the “cash for ash” calamity – or “catastrophe” as one senior Northern Ireland civil servant, Andrew McCormick, described it. Why was it a catastrophe?

The scheme was designed to encourage firms, businesses and farmers to switch from fossil-fuel heating to biomass systems such as wood-burning boilers. But unlike the scheme in England and Wales there was no cap on subsidies in Northern Ireland. This meant that for every £1 users spent on green-heating systems, they got £1.60 in subsidies – as was said, “the more you burned the more you earned”. That potentially could land the Northern Ireland taxpayer with a £490 million bill over the proposed 20 years of the scheme.

Did RHI have a political and an economic impact?
It sure did. RHI was introduced by the North’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in 2012 when Arlene Foster was its minister.

Three times between 2013 and 2015 whistleblower Janette O’Hagan tried to warn that the scheme was a licence to “burn” money, but politicians and civil servants were not really listening. It was not until December 2016 that the general public finally learned of the scandal. That was when Jonathan Bell, who had succeeded Foster as minister for enterprise, in an interview with BBC’s Stephen Nolan blew the whistle on the scheme. That triggered a series of events that led to Martin McGuinness the following month standing down as Sinn Féin deputy first minister, effectively collapsing Stormont.

It took three years to build it up again.

Will Coghlin’s report be a weighty tome?
It will. It will attempt to make sense of a labyrinthine mess. There will be a multitude of angles for reporters and the public to digest – but essentially it is likely that the report can be broken down into four key elements: what it says about Arlene Foster and the DUP; its verdict on DUP special political advisers, or spads as they are known; its judgment on Sinn Féin; and its evaluation of the competence of Northern Ireland civil servants up to the most senior levels.

Explain about Arlene Foster and the DUP
The scheme came into being when she was the responsible minister. Foster admitted that she did not read the legislation behind RHI. A total of 1,946 applicants were approved for the scheme. There was a spike of 984 applications in the three months from September to November 2015 after officials announced they were correcting the system but before that change took effect. This raised the question as to whether there was political pressure to extend the lifetime of RHI and where that pressure came from.

What Coghlin finds about Foster and about the DUP could have a bearing on whether she can remain as DUP leader and First Minister.

And why are the DUP spads so central to the story?
It goes back to Bell’s December 2016 interview when he claimed that some DUP special advisers were “not allowing this scheme to be closed” – an allegation they have denied. There are also claims that the unelected spads carried great power and influence. There is the further issue of why one of the DUP spads, Andrew Crawford, as he told the inquiry, inappropriately passed on information about the scheme to a number of relatives.

And what about Sinn Féin?
One, there is the question over why the Department of Agriculture promoted the scheme when Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was the agriculture minister – the department held 58 workshops explaining the benefits of the scheme when she was in charge.

And, two, why over December 2016 and January 2017, when the controversy was escalating did the Sinn Féin minister for finance Máirtín Ó Muilleoir update senior republican back-room figures, Pádraic Wilson, Martin Lynch and Ted Howell on developments. And why in particular amid efforts to impose cost restrictions on RHI did he feel he had to email Howell to ask, “would you be content if I were to sign off the business plan” to reduce costs. As efforts continue to form a government in the Republic this all plays into the question, who runs Sinn Féin?

Why will senior civil servants worry about the report?
They have many questions to answer: why did they miss that RHI was not capped; why did they not heed the warnings of the whistleblower Janette O’Hagan; why did they not stand up to the spads; why did they allow important meetings to take place without minutes being taken; and generally why were they so ineffective in representing the taxpayer?