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Cash for ash: No corruption but much criticism of RHI scheme as report published

DUP leader Arlene Foster said she welcomed the findings of the report.

Arlene Foster speaking to the media in London earlier this week.
Arlene Foster speaking to the media in London earlier this week.
Image: Jonathan Brady/PA

CORRUPT ACTIVITY WAS not behind what went wrong with Northern Ireland’s botched renewable heating scheme, according to a report published today.  

While critical of DUP leader Arlene Foster, the report found no evidence of “corrupt or malicious” activity.

“Corrupt or malicious activity on the part of officials, Ministers or Special Advisers was not the cause of what went wrong with the NI RHI scheme,” the report published today states.

Rather, the vast majority of what went wrong was due to an accumulation and compounding of errors and omissions over time and a failure of attention, on the part of all those involved in their differing roles, to identify the existence, significance or implications of those errors and omissions.

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.

Described as a ‘project too far’, the scheme should never have been launched without the “necessary resources and capability” the report states. 

“A culture which allows such blinkered belief in the correctness of their approach is of significant concern to the Inquiry and must not be allowed to continue, if such a situation is to be avoided in the future,” the report states. 

Here are some of the key findings from the RHI report:

– The overseeing Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment had previous experience of running a grant support scheme for renewable energy and was not starting completely from scratch.

– The inquiry did not believe it would have been impossible to agree wording which allowed Northern Ireland to be included in the Great Britain scheme or UK-wide version.

The difference was that in Northern Ireland a price cap was not imposed and this allowed costs to rise.

A “tension” existed between whether to adopt a Northern Ireland-specific approach or be part of initiatives in Great Britain.

“It would have been very difficult for officials to decide which of two differing directions to follow,” the report states. 

– The Treasury ought to have clearly informed the Stormont department which designed the scheme, Deti, of the basic structure of the method of funding employed, an annual allocation designed to be more flexible and reflect the unpredictable nature of the scheme.

That should have included the element of “risk sharing” with the devolved administration’s budget whereby overspending would fall to Stormont’s coffers to cover.

– The design of the RHI scheme should have included proper consideration of the controls needed to reflect the position of heightened financial risk.

– Resources to develop this “novel and complicated” scheme were “inadequate”.

“The small team was simply not provided with the necessary knowledge or experience to carry out the necessary activities, to analyse the information it received, to make the necessary judgments nor was there any adequate effort to access expertise in other parts of the Northern Ireland Government.”

– Failings around project management and the RHI scheme were more “unacceptable” since throughout its life Deti was actively considering failings from previous projects.

DUP

The DUP played a central role in the mishandling of the scheme. Foster and her then special advisor, Dr Andrew Crawford, are criticised in the report. 

The arrangement between Foster and her special advisor, the report states “was ineffective and led to false reassurance on the part of the Minister, and potentially of officials, as to the level of scrutiny applied to detailed technical reports provided to the Minister”.

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. 

Highly anticipated, the finding’s of today’s report could pose difficult questions for power-sharing and governance in the North in the days to come. 

Today, Foster repeated her apology for her mistakes in the scandal and welcomed the publication of the report. 

In a statement following the report’s publication, she said she was “pleased that there has been no finding to support those who alleged improper motivation or indeed in some cases that I, or the party, was motivated by some financial considerations in the actions or omissions that took place”.

“Amongst the legitimate criticisms, some chose to use the crisis to deliberately mislead,” Foster said. 

She added that the report will require “careful consideration so that collectively we can ensure there is no repeat of the many systemic failings across government”.  

Civil service

Civil servants face particular criticism in the report, with Coghlin highlighting a dysfunctional and poorly managed system of governance in Stormont departments. 

Referring to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the report writes that it “failed to uncover important issues or to act as an appropriate conduit to deliver important information to senior management about the flaws and mounting risks of the NI RHI scheme”.

“This failure was due to a combination of inadequate corporate response to learning from past mistakes; weak governance systems; and officials not adhering sufficiently or adequately to the multiple reporting systems which did exist.”

Today, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood called for the immediate reform of the Northern Ireland civil service. 

Calling the RHI scheme the “biggest financial scandal in the history of devolution”, Eastwood said that the “recommendations that Patrick Coughlin has made today must be the basis of a new approach to government and a new approach by government to the public”.

With reporting from Press Association

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