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RHI fiasco: DUP chief Arlene Foster defends withholding information from Northern Ireland

By Claire Williamson

DUP leader Arlene Foster has confirmed she withheld information when delivering a statement on the RHI scandal to the Northern Ireland Assembly - as it would have been " quite wrong" to name a key party adviser at the centre of claims levelled by a top civil servant.

On Thursday the BBC Stephen Nolan show reported that the former First Minister knew about civil servant Dr Andrew McCormick's claim that a special advisor had made a key intervention.

The senior DUP figure who made the claims was not named on the programme.

Dr McCormick - who is now permanent secretary at the Department for the Economy - told the PAC he believed Dr Crawford was exerting influence on his successor, DUP special adviser Timothy Cairns, at the time discussions were under way to impose caps on the incentive in 2015.

Dr Crawford denied the civil servant's claims, saying he had offered only "informal advice and assistance" as a colleague to his successor in the department, and was not acting on behalf of either the Finance Minister or the DUP.

He has subsequently resigned.

The statement in question was delivered by Mrs Foster on December 19.

Mrs Foster spoke in a more broad manner referring to "some in the party" instead of directly referencing the special advisor.

On Friday, confirming she was aware of the civil servant's position on Dr Crawford when giving the statement, she said it would have been "quite wrong" to name him.

She told BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics programme: "It would have been quite wrong to have named an individual on hearsay evidence and anybody who knows anything about hearsay it is just that - it is hearsay, it is not evidence that anybody has done anything wrong.

"And I could not find any evidence, either in written evidence or evidence from anybody else, that Andrew (Crawford) had done what Andrew's (McCormick) belief said that he had."

On December 19 Mrs Foster told the Assembly: "I understand from Minister Hamilton that the Permanent Secretary recalls being told at the time that some in the party wanted the scheme kept open.

She continued: "The Minister was not subsequently overruled by Special Advisors and I am clear that whatever representations may have been made by anyone on this issue, it was not not being done with the authority of the party."

Mrs Foster said Dr Crawford would be "absolutely cleared" in the forthcoming public inquiry into the scandal.

"Andrew McCormick was very clear he said it was his belief, but he had no evidence to back up that belief.

"And I think it is wrong that we pursue people on beliefs.

"What we do is we get to the facts, we get to the evidence and that's why the public inquiry is hugely important for the people of Northern Ireland."

The statement on December 19 was surrounded in controversy as she did not have the approval of then deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to give the statement in the chamber to explain her role in the RHI.

All non-DUP MLAs had earlier walked out following the decision to allow Mrs Foster to deliver the statement.

All statements by Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness's joint office needed the support of both sides of the power-sharing executive.

Mrs Foster gave the statement to a three-quarters empty chamber and answered questions tabled by her own members.

Read more:

Full Arlene Foster statement to Assembly over RHI debacle  

Mrs Foster told the Assembly she had "nothing to hide in this matter".

She said: "I'm happy to go to the PAC because I have nothing to hide in this matter, absolutely nothing.

"I'm putting everything out there. I'm calling for an inquiry if I can get that arranged."

She added: "It is all party politics and this party will not be part of it."

Timeline: How Renewable Heat Incentive unfolded

November 2012 - Arlene Foster, then Enterprise Minister, announces the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme for businesses.

October 2013 - A whistleblower emails Mrs Foster to express concerns over the scheme.

Autumn 2013 - The woman is referred by Mrs Foster to officials from her Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and she urges them to address the problems.

May 2014 - The whistleblower emails again, after the civil servants appear to do nothing. She explicitly outlines how the scheme was being abused, was paying out exorbitant sums of money, and could not be ignored any longer.

December 2014 - The scheme is extended to domestic customers by Mrs Foster.

November 2015 - With the realisation the funding available for applicants is uncapped, Stormont tightens the rules.

But a massive late surge of 900 applications is received before changes can be made.

January 2016 - Another whistleblower civil servant tells the Executive the scheme is being abused.

February 6 - New Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell (above) makes a shock announcement that the RHI scheme to be scrapped.

February 9 - Michael Doran of Action Renewables warns it will force renewables from "boom to bust."

June - Auditors begin investigating concerns.

July 5 - A damning Audit Office report states a farmer will make £1m of government money just for heating an empty shed. It reveals that more than £1 billion of public money will be paid to Northern Ireland-based businesses by 2036 after they installed new appliances under the RHI scheme.

October - Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) call the mishandling of the RHI scheme "one of the biggest scandals" since devolution. SDLP Assembly member Daniel McCrossan tells officials from government utility regulator OFGEM, which administered the scheme: "It was very clear the department was asleep at the wheel but I am horrified that you too were asleep at the wheel in relation to this."

November - The Public Accounts Committee is told that a £405m hole will have to be plugged over the 20-year lifetime of the RHI.

Dr Andrew McCormick (above), permanent secretary for the Economy Department, says he can't think of any government scheme being worse value for money.

December 2016

12 December: First Minister Arlene Foster says she won't quit over the fiasco following allegations that she did not act appropriately when concerns were first raised about the scheme. It also emerges the brother of a DUP special advisor and a Ferrari showroom have benefited from the error-ridden scheme.

13 December: UUP leader Mike Nesbitt claims to have uncovered the "smoking gun" of Arlene Foster's involvement in the decision-making process in connection with the flawed RHI scheme.

14 December: The SDLP says it will table a motion of no confidence to exclude Arlene Foster as First Minister. Sinn Fein says it won't back the motion. Meanwhile the UUP says the UK Government can no longer ignore the "national scandal".

The DUP's Nigel Dodds hits out at a "scurrilous attempt" to blame Arlene Foster for the botched energy scheme. The party releases what it says is a copy of the 2013 email sent from the whistleblower to Mrs Foster, saying that it raised no specific concerns about RHI.

15 December: Arlene Foster says she has nothing to hide from a BBC interview with former DUP minister Jonathan Bell, who vowed to tell the truth about the scandal, adding the revelations will end his political career.

Jonathan Bell claims DUP advisers attempted to delay the closure of the scheme in its original and generous format. He also said attempts were made to remove references to the Finance Department and Arlene Foster in records. The claims were denied.

16 December: Deputy first Minister Martin McGuinness calls for the DUP leader to stand aside from her role as First Minister while a full investigation is carried out into the scheme. The DUP rejects the call.

19 December: Arlene Foster faced a motion of no confidence as the devolved assembly was recalled for a special sitting to discuss the growing political crisis in the run-up to Christmas. The First Minister apologised for failing to put in place cost controls, but defended her role. The motion of no confidence failed on a cross-community vote.

January 2017:

13 January: Sinn Fein outline how an inquiry should be conducted with the first minister standing aside to allow for a preliminary report to be made in four weeks. A full report would then be published in three months time.

16 January: Martin McGuinness's resignation and Sinn Fein's refusal to nominate a deputy First Minister over Arlene Foster's refusal to stand aside leads to the collapse of the institutions and an election being called.

January 18: Economy Department civil service head Andrew McCromick tells the Stormont PAC insider information that the scheme was to close may have had a significant impact on the £490m overspend. He also said he believed a DUP spad "exerted influence" in keeping the scheme open, but insisted he had no evidence to back it up. That adviser, Andrew Crawford, rejected he attempted to keep it open.

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