RHI whistleblower 'gets no joy from Assembly’s fall but had to lift lid on scandal'
RHI whistleblower on the train of events that led inexorably to political collapse
The whistleblower at the centre of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal has said she takes no joy in the collapse of Stormont.
And she revealed she had spoken to business owners with concerns about the environment — but who were making so much money from the RHI it made no financial sense for them to turn off the heat.
The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, was the first person to sound alarm bells about the botched energy scheme and continued seeking change over several years.
“I’m very concerned about the state of Northern Ireland and the instability this has caused. I wouldn’t want this situation all,” the whistleblower said.
“I don’t want my children growing up in the Northern Ireland I grew up in.”
She first held a meeting with three civil servants in Arlene Foster’s department, and said they immediately dismissed her claim that businesses would burn up as many wood pellets as possible to profit from RHI.
Her emails to the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) are currently being studied by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and PwC, the consultants hired to investigate the running of RHI.
The woman said that she never intended playing a part in removing Mrs Foster from office or to contribute to a new Assembly election being called.
“I am the least political person you will ever find. I’ve learned more about politics in the last three months than I had in my entire life,” she said.
She said that three members of the PAC had visited her and she found them very professional.
However, she added she would not be appearing before the PAC despite their personal requests that she do so.
“I sought legal advice and was told that if I go before the PAC, some politicians will seek to discredit me because they represent people who have gained from the RHI,” she explained.
She recalled the meeting in October 2013 when she told the department about the misuse of RHI.
“I was told: ‘People would never do that’. Those words have always stayed with me,” she said.
She was the first person to raise concerns about RHI, the £1.1bn cost of which led to the collapse of Stormont.
She said she pleaded with Mrs Foster’s department, saying businesses would put radiators on the outside of their buildings, such were the generous grants on offer under the scheme.
The suggestion of wanton waste was immediately dismissed by senior civil servants in Mrs Foster’s department, she added.
The October 2013 meeting came after she emailed the department, and personally emailed Mrs Foster, who was then the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, as well as another person tasked with introducing the scheme.
She said the meeting left her “deeply frustrated”.
Particularly as the only action taken was to invite her to make a submission to a public consultation paper on the domestic part of RHI.
The woman’s claims that she contacted Mrs Foster and DETI, and had a meeting with DETI staff, is backed up by an email trail currently being studied by the PAC and PwC.
“They were friendly but they weren’t helpful at all,” the whistleblower said.
In August 2013 she had contacted Steven Agnew MLA, the Green Party leader, to alert him to the problem.
He put a written question at the Assembly to Mrs Foster about RHI, and her answer was received after the whistleblower’s meeting with officials from her department.
“The written response from Arlene Foster to his question was that, given the high cost of wood boilers, people would do everything they can to be as efficient as possible,” the whistleblower said.
Mrs Foster later became First Minister, leaving the running of RHI to Jonathan Bell, the Economy Minister.
He says Mrs Foster aggressively dismissed his concerns about RHI during a stormy meeting in January 2016, a claim Mrs Foster denies.
The whistleblower recalled that Mrs Foster said the RHI scheme was undersubscribed when it was under her department’s watch and was oversubscribed under Mr Bell’s watch.
“I think that’s irrelevant. It took time for word to get out about money that could be earned under the RHI,” she said.
She first became aware of RHI after setting up her own company to promote cost savings through energy efficiency.
Everywhere she went in Northern Ireland, she said, businesses would tell her that they were not interested in energy efficiency because they were trying to burn up as much energy as possible through RHI, which was offering £1.60 returns for every £1 of wood pellets burned.
She said she again wrote to DETI in 2014 and 2015, warning officials about the problems with RHI.
By 2014, all of the people she had met had moved on to other parts of the Civil Service and nothing was done, she said.
“What surprised me was I believe that my emails were being seen by whoever was in charge of the division at that time.
“It wasn’t like (the emails) were being ignored.
“They were being responded to, (the staff) just weren’t doing anything about it,” she said.
Her deepest frustration came in 2015 when she visited a town in Mid Ulster.
A hotel manager there explained to her that he was concerned about the environment but was making too much money under RHI to stop burning wood pellets around the clock.
The hotel had the windows open and was blasting heat on a warm day, she said.
She visited another business in the same town.
All the windows were open and the staff were sweating.
The manager complained to her that the landlord was benefiting from RHI and wouldn’t switch off the radiators.
“I could wear a string vest in here some days, it’s so hot,” he told her.
“That’s very bad for their health also, living like that,” she pointed out.
The woman said it was “madness” that RHI was giving such large grants for wood pellet boilers, which were competing against her business of trying to convince people to save money by being more energy efficient.
“Even by cutting the energy bill of hotels and care homes by 30%, I still couldn’t compete,” she added.
I decided that all our business would likely be in the rest of the UK.”
The woman asked not to be named because she feared being identified as a “tout” by one of the more than 2,000 businesses now profiting under the botched scheme.
“I’m sure you are aware of the reality of life in Northern Ireland,” she said.
She also did not want to be seen to be trying to dismantle RHI for her own business reasons. “I actually think biomass is a good idea, the RHI was just badly implemented,” she said.
The Department for the Economy said it was aware of a request for comment and would issue a response in time.