MARTIN MCGUINNESS RESIGNED as Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister today over the long-running Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) or ‘cash for ash’ scandal.
The move came after First Minister Arlene Foster ignored repeated calls for her to step aside while an investigation is carried out into the scheme – which could cost taxpayers in the North in the region of £400 million (about €460 million), possibly more.
There are questions over how long Foster, who was the minister with responsibility for the scheme from its inception in 2012 until 2015 – knew the initiative was flawed.
The RHI aimed to encourage businesses (and later individuals) to switch to more environmentally-friendly heating methods. Subsidies paid to companies were not capped and the more heat a business generated, the higher the subsidy it received.
In his resignation letter, McGuinness said Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), “has a clear conflict of interest”.
She was the minister responsible for the RHI scheme at its inception. No cost controls were put in place and warnings were ignored. This has led to an enormously damaging pressure on our public finances and a crisis of confidence in the political institutions…
“Sinn Féin will not tolerate the arrogance of Arlene Foster and the DUP. Sinn Féin wants equality and respect for all. That is what this process must be about.”
Power sharing in the North is on the brink of collapse as a result of his resignation and a snap election is likely.
So, what exactly is the cash for ash controversy? We take a look back at the key events in its history:
November 2012: The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is set up by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in a bid to encourage businesses to switch from oil or gas to wood pellet boilers. It is part of Northern Ireland’s plan to meet renewable energy targets. At the time, Arlene Foster is the department’s minister.
Autumn 2013: A whistleblower contacts the department, warning of flaws with the RHI, which she claims overpays businesses and does not provide an incentive to be energy efficient. Officials at the department look into her allegations but they are dismissed.
May 2014: Unhappy with the lack of action, the whistleblower sends the following email – sourced by BBC News – to the department:
“What we are seeing on the ground in Northern Ireland is that buildings are using more energy than before because it pays them to do so.
The flat rate means there is no incentive at all to be efficient, so the heat in buildings is on all year round with the windows open everywhere.
“When we had spoken (in 2013) you did not believe that people would do this. But believe me it’s happening.
“It’s got to a stage where it cannot be ignored any longer.”
Summer 2015: Officials move to cut the subsidy paid to businesses, which has no cap, after realising an error in how the initiative was set up means companies could make hundreds of thousands of pounds off it.
The more heat a business generates, the higher the subsidy it is paid, making the scheme bad for both the taxpayer and the environment. For every £1 a business spends on fuel, it gets £1.60 in subsidies from the government.
There is a jump in applications to join the scheme before the changes come into effect.
January 2016: Jonathan Bell, Foster’s successor at the department, announces the closure of the scheme. A second whistleblower contacts Foster with more allegations about the RHI.
December 2016: In an interview with BBC Northern Ireland, Bell alleges Foster knew about flaws with the scheme but refused to shut it down.
I was ordered to appear in front of the First Minister. In the strongest terms possible, both in volume and force, Arlene Foster overruled me and told me to keep the scheme open.
“Hostile … and abusive,” is how Bell described the 2015 meeting with Foster.
When asked “abusive in what way,” he answered: “She walked in and shouted at me that I would keep this scheme open.”
Foster denies any involvement in keeping the flaws of the scheme hidden, telling the Irish News she reported the flaws to the relevant people once she was made aware.
Foster tells the Northern Ireland assembly she supports “an independent investigation, free from partisan political interference, to establish the facts around the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme”.
She said it “must be conducted speedily to assist in the process of building public confidence”.
I have been working to reach agreement with officials and others on the precise details of such an investigation over the last number of days.
Bell is suspended from the DUP. Foster survives a no confidence motion in Stormont.
The First Minister hits out at Bell when interviewed by BBC’s Stephen Nolan, criticising her former colleague’s conduct. Bell says he will sue Foster over her comments.
January 2017: Belfast City Council votes to call for a full public inquiry into the scheme and some call for Foster to temporarily stand aside until such an inquiry is completed.
In a statement, Foster says: “My opponents want to be judge, jury and executioner on these issues. For our part we support the establishment of an independent investigation.”
She says there isn’t any “a scintilla of evidence of wrongdoing against me”.
In a separate interview with Sky News, Foster claims sexism is at play in calls for her to step down:
“A lot of it personal. There’s a lot of it, sadly, misogynistic as well because I’m a female, the first female leader of Northern Ireland.
Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I’m going to roll over to Sinn Féin. I’m not going to roll over to Sinn Féin, I’m not going roll over to my political opponents. I’m going to deal with the issues because that’s what the electorate want me to do.
Sinn Féin outlines plans for an independent investigation.
Foster ignores calls from Sinn Féin and others to step aside, culminating in McGuinness’ resignation.
If Foster steps aside within the next week, Sinn Féin could technically nominate McGuinness to return as Deputy First Minister.
However, the party says it will not nominate a successor to McGuinness until after an election, which now seems imminent.