A test of Stormont institutions

Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was allowed run for three years unchecked

It’s been suggested that the North’s unholy row over First Minister Arlene Foster’s responsibility for the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme (RHI), its £405 million overrun, and its delayed scrapping, is evidence at last of “normal politics”. A sign of the maturing of the peace process and its institutions – MLAs, after all, are arguing about mere money, not history.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The artificial construct and inbuilt dysfunctionality of the North’s politics and institutions, and not least the ability of either community – in practice the DUP or Sinn Féin – to veto all proposals makes parliamentary accountability impossible and a joke of ministerial responsibility.

A DUP minority has blocked a motion calling on Foster to step aside on the basis that it did not have cross-community support. But were the Assembly a “normal” parliament, the idea that “the buck stops here” would be embedded in the ministerial culture, and Foster would long have resigned over the colossal incompetence of her staff. A vote would not be necessary.

It is also crucial to see beyond the noisy internal DUP tiff between Foster and former minister Jonathan Bell. Their dispute over how he belatedly sought to close down the RHI raises important questions about the role of special advisers and bullying by one or the other minister. But it's small beer compared to more crucial questions for any eventual inquiry about the RHI's establishment and survival for so long. And, cui bono.


When the extension of the UK ’s RHI scheme to the North was planned in 2012, the cost of fuel wood chips for biomass boilers was more than the proposed subsidy. No need , Foster’s then department was advised, for a cap on spending because there was no incentive to burn more than necessary. As time passed, however, the proposed subsidy rose while market pressures pushed the cost of wood chips down. A huge incentive emerged endlessly to heat empty barns.

Whistleblowers as early as 2013 were ignored. No-one remembered the rationale for the capless system until applications spiked in late 2015 and London said it would not go on paying spiralling bills. The balance of commitments, now £405 million, would have to be met from the North’s resources. Only then did it occur to the North’s political leaders to close the scheme down.

This colossal waste of taxpayer money was allowed to run for three years unchecked. Was this just because of incompetent civil servants? Weak budgetary controls? Weak ministerial oversight? What are those special advisers paid for? And how much was it all perhaps an indifference to the profligate spending of someone else’s money?

The RHI crisis is ultimately about both the squandering of taxpayers' money, but also whether Stormont itself is fit for purpose and capable of administering devolved government.