RHI: Belfast City Council backs call for full public inquiry into Stormont's botched green energy scheme
Belfast councillors have backed a motion calling for a full public inquiry into the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme that is set to cost Stormont around £500 million.
The development comes amid an escalating political row that has edged the powersharing institutions towards implosion.
Independent unionist councillor Ruth Patterson proposed the motion and following a lengthy debate, 23 councillors voted in favour, 12 voted against and 18 abstained. DUP voted against while Sinn Fein councillors abstained.
The motion calls for Belfast City Council to write to the Secretary of State James Brokenshire and request a full public inquiry. The motion also called for the council to write to formally request that First Minister Arlene Foster steps aside pending an inquiry.
Cllr Patterson said: "There is a little girl in the Royal Victoria Hospital who is terminally ill and she's not going to last much longer, and whenever I look at us sitting here squabbling and £400m gone up in smoke, just think of what that £400m could have done for the health service. It really puts everything into perspective this evening."
Councillors also voted in support of a call to reveal the names of those who make large donations to Northern Ireland parties. The Alliance Party motion was passed by 38 votes in favour to 13 against. It was supported by councillors from Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Green Party, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).
It was opposed by DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party councillors.
Earlier on Tuesday the British Government rejected a call by Alliance party leader Naomi Long to instigate a public inquiry into the scheme.
However the Government made clear the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) controversy was a devolved issue for the administration in Belfast to deal with.
Ms Long had written to Mr Brokenshire and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Gauke demanding intervention from London.
In response, a Government spokesman said: "The operation of the RHI scheme is a matter for the NI Executive. So it is right for the Executive and the Assembly to decide the form of any investigation or inquiry."
The state funded RHI was supposed to offer a proportion of the cost businesses had to pay to run eco-friendly boilers, but the subsidy tariffs were set too high, and without a cap, so it ended up paying out significantly more than the price of fuel.
This enabled applicants to "burn to earn" - getting free heat and making a profit as they did it.
Claims of widespread abuse include a farmer allegedly set to pocket around £1 million in the next two decades for heating an empty shed.
Sinn Fein has made clear it will collapse Stormont's ruling executive, triggering fresh elections, if Democratic Unionist First Minister Arlene Foster, who oversaw the inception of the scheme during her time as economy minister, does not stand aside to enable an investigation to take place.
With Mrs Foster steadfastly refusing to step down, the administration is on a course to hit the rocks in mid January when a Sinn Fein motion comes to the floor of the Assembly.
Sinn Fein itself has faced claims of flip-flopping on the question of whether a full scale public inquiry should be launched.
Confusion reigned on Monday when Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney issued a statement calling for a public inquiry, only for his comments to be withdraw and reissued by the party two hours later with the demand altered to a call for an independent investigation. The party blamed a "typo" for the content of the original statement.
Mrs Long wrote to the UK government ministers, claiming DUP resistance to a public inquiry should prompt action from Whitehall. She said it was vital an inquiry was triggered, as it would have the powers to compel evidence and witnesses.
"In light of such serious allegations and the failure of the Executive to address them, I would ask that Treasury step in and set up such a fully independent, judge-led inquiry into this matter as a matter of urgency as I am increasingly of the view that the NI Executive will not be capable of overcoming political differences to do so," she wrote.
Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt said the affair demonstrated that the DUP and Sinn Fein were incapable of working together.
"What is required now is a collective effort to start the process of restoring public confidence in the integrity of the devolved institutions," he said.
"That requires leadership, and as our First Minister, Mrs Foster should lead the way by accepting the principle of Ministerial Responsibility and resigning.
"We also need a judge-led, time-bound public inquiry under the terms of the 2005 Inquiries Act.
"It is high time personal careers played second fiddle to saving Stormont."
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said only a full public inquiry would suffice.
"Sinn Fein's bluster on RHI will prove only that without commitment to a full public inquiry," he said.
"Anything less provides a soft landing for its DUP partner, which, I suspect, is Sinn Fein's real intent.
"As yet unseen concessions have probably been extracted, or are being negotiated, as the price of blocking a proper public inquiry."
RHI spend estimated to be more than £1 billion
It was originally envisaged that the Treasury would foot the bill for the RHI, but the costs spiralled well beyond London's financial commitment. The total RHI spend in Northern Ireland is estimated to be more than £1 billion over the next 20 years.
The Treasury is set to cover £660 million of that, with Stormont landed with the remaining £490 million.
Sinn Fein Health minister Michelle O'Neill again called on Mrs Foster to step aside. She said her party wanted a time-limited independent investigation that could compel witnesses.
"Arlene Foster needs to step aside to allow that to happen and to begin to rebuild confidence in the political institutions," she said.
"If Arlene Foster has any sense of the outrage and anger in the public then she will step aside."
DUP MP for East Londonderry Gregory Campbell insisted his party leader would be going nowhere.
"I don't think Arlene Foster really has any pressure on her from within the party or the unionist community," he told UTV.
"The more Sinn Fein press for her to go the more unionists will be saying we need a strong woman and a strong first minister."
A move to introduce a redesigned scheme, with tiered payments, in the autumn of 2015 was met by a flurry of applicants trying to get on to the old system before the date set for the changes.
Almost 1,000 applied in three months - around the same number from over the previous three years. The deluge of new applications was a key factor in the massive overspend.
Ulster Farmers' Union warned of spike
On Tuesday there was a renewed focus on a statement from the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU), issued when the scheme was finally closed in February 2016, which said it had warned Stormont of the risks of a spike months before it happened.
The February statement from the UFU said that in July 2015 it met with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (a department then headed by DUP minister Jonathan Bell) and "warned of an imminent spike in demand".
In response, the Department for the Economy (DETI's new name) said t he outcome of the meeting with the UFU was an agreed paper setting out the heat demands of a typical poultry house.
"This paper and discussions at the meeting helped to inform the changes to the RHI scheme that were introduced in November 2015 and the introduction of a 400,000 kwh cap," said a departmental spokeswoman.
"The department recognises, with hindsight, that earlier introduction of cost controls and disincentives to excess use of the scheme might well have reduced or prevented the spike in applications which forced the sudden suspension of the RHI in February 2016.
"Full understanding of why this happened will be the subject of the forthcoming independent investigation."