When Stormont’s credibility went up in flames

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A review by Rory Carroll of ‘Burned - The inside story of the ‘cash for ash’ scandal and Northern Ireland’s secretive new elite’, by Sam McBride (for the Guardian).

 

The story has all the elements to lull you to sleep: state subsidies, bureaucratic jargon, poultry farms, committee meetings, wood pellet boilers. Throw in arcana about tariff methodologies and photovoltaic panels and it sounds bewildering as well as boring. In fact Sam McBride’s Burned is a compelling exposé of a system gone rotten. It’s about greed, sleaze and dysfunction, a saga of incompetence, nitwittedness and knavery by those who ran Northern Ireland until the scandal broke and collapsed the power-sharing government in January 2017. Almost three years later there is still a power vacuum and Stormont, the seat of the assembly and executive sited on a grand estate outside Belfast, remains mothballed.

The botched renewable heat initiative (RHI), which spiralled out of control and triggered the implosion, is due soon for a denouement in the form of a public inquiry report that is expected to chronicle the fiasco in exhaustive, damning detail. McBride’s book delivers its own analysis. Running to almost 400 pages including notes and index, it raises profound questions about governance and accountability in Northern Ireland – and the region’s place in the UK. With timing that is fortuitous or cruel, depending on your perspective, Burned showers blistering sparks on the Democratic Unionist party just as it tries to persuade voters to return its 10 MPs to Westminster. DUP leaders threatened legal action in a vain effort to douse some revelations. As political editor of the Belfast News Letter, McBride is a convincing messenger. A respected, dogged journalist who works for a pro-union newspaper, he is no cheerleader for Sinn Féin.

The RHI started in 2012 as a well-intentioned UK-wide effort to reduce carbon emissions by switching from fossil fuels to renewable sources. Northern Ireland’s department of enterprise, trade and investment, then run by Arlene Foster, a Stormont minister and rising DUP star, essentially copied and pasted the Whitehall legislation – with one significant excision that hardly anyone noticed at the time. Years later, after the scandal broke, McBride used computer comparison software to discover that the new version of RHI omitted 107 words dealing with cost controls. This tweak made the subsidy more valuable than the cost of wood pellets used to heat boilers. And it failed to cap the total subsidy. Word spread: boilers meant profits – the more boilers and the more you burned the richer you became. The result was a scramble to install boilers and run them 24/7. Abuse abounded. One farmer who heated an empty chicken shed anticipated making £1m over 20 years. Farmers, the joke went, needed oven gloves to open sheds.

A whistleblower notified Foster’s department about abuses in 2013 and again in 2014 – to no avail. The scheme continued and was extended. Officials and politicians seemed oblivious or complicit. The projected cost overrun ran to hundreds of millions of pounds and Stormont shrugged. It assumed the UK Treasury was footing the bill. “I am a little confused over what the problem is,” Andrew Crawford, Foster’s long-serving special adviser, emailed a colleague. “If we go over our … target all that will happen is that we will get more than our fair share of the UK pot. I would have thought that this is to Northern Ireland’s advantage.” When Whitehall said it would not cover the overrun, panic ensued. In early 2017 Sinn Féin demanded Foster, by now first minister and DUP leader, step aside pending investigation. She refused. Sinn Féin withdrew from Stormont, collapsing devolution. Northern Ireland remains adrift.

McBride, drawing on interviews and evidence aired in the public inquiry, is forensic in apportioning blame. Civil servants lacked expertise in renewable energy and winged it, cutting corners, ignoring warnings, making one blunder after another. They passed the buck, covered up mistakes and were too eager to please their political masters. Foster was clueless. Keener on photo-ops than policy, she admitted not reading her own department’s legislation and let the scheme spin out of control. Old habits endure: she recently told the BBC she would not read Burned but may have someone read it for her. Jonathan Bell, another DUP minister, barely skimmed his briefs, according to McBride. Some DUP special advisers, in contrast, wielded immense clout: Crawford emerges as a svengali who took a close interest in RHI and allegedly lobbied to keep the scheme open, a claim he denies. McBride calculates the adviser’s extended family stood to earn £6m from RHI boilers. Moy Park, the food processing giant, stood to gain far more.

Burned has flaws. It’s too long. It gets lost in the smoke of emails, phone calls, briefings and committee hearings involving bit players. Piling fact on fact slows the narrative and at times clouds the bigger picture. But McBride is a deft storyteller and crafts memorable scenes. And he emerges with stark conclusions. The unedifying picture of unionist politicians joining forces with Sinn Féin to squeeze taxpayer cash out of Whitehall, heedless of value, could further dent the DUP’s diminished stock with Tory Brexiters. “At some point, if middle England realises it is paying for these sort of scandals, there will be a day of reckoning.”

McBride thinks cash-for-ash breathes life into the republican claim that Stormont can never work and only Irish unity is the answer – an increasingly plausible narrative amid Brexit and Northern Ireland’s approaching 2021 centenary. “What senior DUP figures such as Foster have done with RHI has been recklessly detrimental to that which they say they cherish above all else: the union.”

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