The Cash For Ash Scandal

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Chris Page reports on Northern Ireland's botched green energy scheme which went over budget and brought down the Stormont Assembly for three years.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), introduced in 2012, encouraged business and other non-domestic users to replace their fossil fuel heat generators with bio mass boilers powered by wood pellets. The scheme offered long term financial support to cover the cost of the switchover. It was to help Northern Ireland meet its green energy targets.

A similar scheme was running in Great Britain but with one crucial difference - subsidies were capped. Hardly surprising then that, once the financial benefits became common knowledge in Northern Ireland, applicants to the scheme rose steadily. Allegations soon emerged about farmers heating empty chicken sheds and care homes leaving windows open and radiators turned up to maximum.

Northern Ireland civil servants and politicians have yet to fully explain why the scheme wasn't capped or why a whistleblower's warnings were ignored. Panic finally set in, three years later, when officials in Stormont's Department of Enterprise (DETI) realised they - not the Treasury - would have to pick up the costs.

Desperate attempts to rework the scheme and reduce the subsidies coincided with a sudden surge of applicants - 984 bids were received in just three months. Some were linked to family members and business associates of Northern Ireland's largest political party, the Democratic Unionists (DUP), led by Arlene Foster who was the Stormont Enterprise minister for much of this period. There were allegations that some DUP special advisors (SPADS) were working behind the scenes to prevent changes to the RHI scheme – allegations which were denied at the time.

The scheme was finally closed to new applicants in 2016 by the then DUP Enterprise Minister, Jonathan Bell, but an Assembly committee started an investigation and a highly critical audit report was published. Media coverage fuelled public anger and the crisis escalated with an extraordinary BBC interview given by Jonathan Bell, who alleged that Arlene Foster and some DUP SPADS had prevented him from closing the scheme earlier.

The ensuing political crisis led to the resignation of the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness and the collapse of the Assembly. It was to lie dormant for three years.

A judicial public Inquiry began hearings in November 2017. Politicians, civil servants, special advisors and energy experts were subject to months of forensic questioning. A green energy scheme, gone wrong, became the topic of everyday conversation in Northern Ireland.

During the course of the Inquiry, it was revealed that one DUP SPAD had passed on confidential information about the scheme to a family member and two others had perceived conflicts of interest. The Head of NI's Civil Service, David Sterling, admitted that some of his staff failed to keep accurate minutes of meetings because of the DUP and Sinn Fein's desire for secrecy. Arlene Foster and special advisors admitted they hadn't read key documents.

Critics say the whole episode has been a searing indictment of the structure of government in Northern Ireland where, they say, checks and balances are inadequate. It's still not clear how much the whole debacle will cost in the end. Retrospective cost controls were introduced, so the projected overspend has been reduced, but a number of boiler owners are taking a court case against the Executive claiming that it broke the terms of its original agreement. The case is expected to be heard in the summer and, if they win, it could mean a hefty bill for Stormont.

Judge Patrick Coghlin's inquiry's findings are eagerly awaited. He's expected to recommend some far reaching changes to the role of special advisors and how government departments are run in Northern Ireland. He will also have some important rulings on how the civil service should operate in the future.

Presenter: Chris Page
Producer: Kathleen Carragher

A Yamal production for BBC Radio 4

Chris Page tells the inside story of Northern Ireland's botched green energy scheme.

The inside story of Northern Ireland's "Cash for Ash" scandal.