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'Cash for ash': Everything you need to know about the scandal that collapsed Stormont

The DUP is expected to be criticised heavily when the RHI report is published on Friday.

The inquiry dominated headlines in Northern Ireland as it revealed the inner workings of Stormont.
The inquiry dominated headlines in Northern Ireland as it revealed the inner workings of Stormont.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images

NEXT WEEK WILL see the publication of the report into the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. More commonly known as ‘cash for ash’, the furore caused significant embarrassment to the DUP, helped collapse power-sharing and left the North without a government for three years. 

One of the most remarkable scandals to hit Northern Ireland politics in the last two decades, the report follows a long and dramatic inquiry that ran between 2017 and 2018.

Chaired by Sir Patrick Coghlin, the inquiry sought to shed light on the decisions of senior DUP politicians, special advisors and civil servants that ultimately cost Northern Irish taxpayers tens of millions of pounds.

Now, after a lengthy wait, the report into the crisis will be published on Friday 13 March. 

Often dubbed a ‘botched’ scheme, the RHI story goes all the way back to 2012 when the scheme was established by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

Created to encourage the use of renewable energy sources, it instead was so poorly designed that it became open to widespread abuse. 

One of the major flaws was simple. The subsidies paid out through the scheme were much higher than the costs of the fuels. 

And once someone had joined the scheme, they could expect to benefit from the subsidy – with no limits or tiering – for 20 years.

Hence people came to believe that they could ‘burn to earn’. 

Quickly, stories of that exact practice began to filter through the North as rumours of people heating empty sheds began to proliferate. 

Yet despite repeated warnings and obvious problems, it took years for for the scheme to be closed. 

And as the inquiry unfolded and more and more journalists came wise to the consequences of the scheme, questions began to be asked about how the poultry industry in the North in particular was benefiting – and the sector’s links to some senior DUP figures.

Most of all, the scandal shone a light on the dysfunctional relationships at the heart of government in the North and the power wielded by unelected, highly paid special advisors. 

Sam McBride, the political editor of the Belfast News Letter, wrote a book called Burned that documented in forensic detail the decisions that contributed to the scandal. 

One of the main allegations people made, McBride told TheJournal.ie, is that “this was not an accident – this was something that quite deliberately ran out of control”. 

“Ultimately, this has always been about where power lies in Northern Ireland and is anyone actually accountable,” he says. 

Foster was the minister in charge of the scheme during its inception and implementation.

Her role came in for intense scrutiny during the inquiry, as did the actions of several DUP ministerial advisers.

Back in 2018, Foster, who by then was leader of the DUP, told the inquiry that she did not do anything wrong. 

“If I had have been made aware of various issues I would have acted differently,” she said.

Foster said the affair was a “matter of deep regret for me politically and personally”.

“There will be known unknowns and unknown unknowns but certainly there seems to be a lot of unknown unknowns,” she said. 

The actions of Sinn Fein ministers and advisers were also challenged by the inquiry panel. Best-known is the revelation that finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir consulted with a senior republican about how to deal with RHI. 

renewable-heat-initiative-allegations The scandal captured the public's attention in the North. Source: Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images

Public reaction

Irish politics is not unfamiliar with public inquiries. But while many often end up being ignored by the vast majority of the public, three years later people in Northern Ireland are still reading about and following ‘cash for ash’. 

Across the North, the scandal dominated conversation and the airwaves for months – and still has people talking. 

“I have been staggered at the scale of the interest from the public on this,” McBride says. “This is a very unique story in Northern Ireland. I have never encountered anything like this.”

“There is a unique anger that straddles that sectarian divide,” he adds. 

In the final chapter of Burned, McBride wrote:

This scandal saw huge sums of public money squandered, brought down a government, involved reprehensible behaviour by some of those charged with serving the people of Northern Ireland, caused financial pain for individuals and trashed Northern Ireland’s reputation. But it also exposed to the light practices which will be difficult to continue if devolution is restored.

What will the report say?

On Friday, Coghlin will present his findings at Parliament Buildings in Stormont.

While it’s hard to predict what exactly the report is going to say, the expectation is that Arlene Foster and the DUP will come in for major criticism. 

It’s something that has the potential to cause difficulties for Sinn Féin, which agreed in January to return to government with the DUP. 

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renewable-heat-initiative-allegations DUP leader Arlene Foster speaking in 2017. Source: Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images

But at worst, it could prove an shock to the shaky foundations of power-sharing. 

“I think it’s a massive bananas skin for this new Stormont and Sinn Fein,” McBride says. 

Sinn Fein pulled the plug on the ministerial executive in January 2017 when DUP leader Arlene Foster refused to stand aside as First Minister to facilitate an investigation into her role in the error-ridden scheme.

The late Martin McGuinness resigned in protest at her decision, precipitating the three-year power-sharing crisis – an impasse that was finally ended in January when the parties agreed to go back into government together.

And while so far all parties have vocalised their commitment to power-sharing in the North, there is little doubt that the report will raise difficult questions for all parties once it’s published on Friday. 

But to McBride, the extent of the public backlash may not matter much in reality. For Sinn Féin and the DUP, there is no real alternative to the current Stormont arrangements. 

“If they are trapped, it also doesn’t matter what the public reaction is. They have to keep the show on the road,” he says. 

With reporting from Press Association

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