An official report into Stormont’s infamous RHI ‘cash for ash’ scheme has been described as a whitewash on social media after it blamed only “errors and omissions” for the runaway exploitation that collapsed the Stormont Executive in early 2017.
A compromised green energy scheme was used by well-connected unionists and others to pointlessly operate hundreds of wood burners day and night on a ‘burn to earn’ basis. Under the scheme, a sixty percent profit was guaranteed, simply for burning wood pellets. Those in the know enriched themselves at a cost to the exchequer of several hundred million pounds.
The scheme came in under DUP leader Arlene Foster’s watch when she was minister at the North’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in 2012.
More than a year after public hearings concluded, retired Judge Patrick Coghlin on Friday described the scheme only as an “accumulation and compounding” of mistakes.
The report found no one individually accountable for the scandal, but described the actions of Foster’s senior adviser Andrew Crawford, who passed confidential information about the free-money scheme to his family and others, as “totally unacceptable”.
Despite the undeniable abuses that took place, and despite the failures to rein in costs, Coghlin claimed the “perverse incentive” where the more boiler users spent, the more they earned, had simply not been spotted.
In order to hammer home his key message, the judge wrote: “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 word “not” was in bold and underlined.
Coghlin insisted the whole idea of grant-aided burners had been bad, risky and misunderstood.
Foster’s decision to agree to a scheme, “without checking” the necessary costs, drew very mild criticism from the retired judge, who blamed her officials for “incorrectly” telling her that RHI was value for money.
The First Minister was predictably delighted by the outcome of the inquiry. Foster had claimed she had not read the technical legislation for the scheme, only explanatory notes. Her refusal to step down while an inquiry took place was a key factor behind the three-year delay in restoring Stormont, which eventually took place in December.
Today, she apologised for “failings” on behalf of herself and her party she said she wanted to “rebuild trust” and “move forward”.
Sinn Féin suffered negligible criticism for former minister for finance Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s decision to consult Ted Howell, a senior Sinn Féin advisor, before he agreed to sanction cost-cutting measures for the scheme.
Ms O’Neill said today, “Sinn Féin is committed to the political institutions, but they must operate differently from what went before, with a new kind of politics, which is progressive, respectful, and has integrity.”
She said scandals like RHI, Nama, Red Sky and others were “unacceptable” and “most stop”.
“We need ministers competent to do their jobs. We need civil service reforms and proper checks and balances too.
“Special Advisors must be accountable. We need open Government where decisions are properly scrutinised day and daily and with no hiding place for any risk of malpractice or cronyism.
“This is what Sinn Féin is committed to.”