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Sinn Fein claim UUP and SDLP 'trying divert attention from their support for RHI scheme'

By Sean O'Driscoll

Sinn Fein has accused the SDLP and UUP of "trying to distract the public's attention from their support" for the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

The two rival parties criticised Sinn Fein's new Northern Ireland leader Michelle O'Neill after it emerged that the old Department of Agriculture ran 58 workshops to promote the controversial RHI under her ministerial leadership.

Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy said the UUP and SDLP were "desperately trying to divert attention away from their own support for the flawed RHI scheme".

"There was no indication of any problem with the renewable energy scheme at that time and neither the SDLP or the UUP raised any concerns about it.

"The real scandal is the fundamental flaws in the construction of this scheme, its application and the unexplained delays by the DUP in closing the scheme down when these flaws became obvious," he said.

Last week, it emerged the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's (DARD, now rebranded the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs) ran 58 workshops in which the benefits of the RHI were explained to farmers.

Ms O'Neill has said it was "irrelevant" that farmers signed up for the RHI while she was agriculture minister and said that the DUP were solely responsible for the programme.

But details have since emerged of how DARD officials promoted the RHI at the height of a sudden spike in applications before the most generous grants were curtailed.

They gave farmers a demonstration of the department's very own RHI-funded wood pellet boiler at the height of the rush to sign up for the programme.

An advertisement for the workshop shows a DARD official pressing the boiler's controls.

The 2015 demonstration, in which a department official showed the Austrian-made 99kw wood pellet boiler to farmers and explained the financial benefits of RHI, came three weeks to the day before the November 19, 2015 cut off point for the most lucrative grants under the scheme.

The demonstration took place at the department's CAFRE campus at Greenmount, Antrim on October 29, 2015 after a day-long DARD workshop on renewable energy for farmers.

Ms O'Neill has denied any wrongdoing. However, Alliance agriculture spokesperson David Ford said: "This situation does not look good for either the Department or Michelle O'Neill as Minister at the time.

"A serious question has been raised by this revelation - namely, when did she and her Department become aware of the serious problems within the RHI scheme?

"While on the surface it may well be as simple as a Government Minister promoting a scheme from another Department, the critical issue is what Michelle O'Neill knew and when, if her Department was alerted to the flaws, and whether she knew about those flaws when the Economy Minister closed the scheme, claiming it was a victim of its own success."

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