Belfast Telegraph

RHI scandal: Arlene Foster says if Spad acted inappropriately it was on solo run and minister not responsible

DUP leader Arlene Foster has said that if a special adviser acted inappropriately in relation to the Renewable Heating Incentive debacle - then they were on a solo run and a minister should not be held accountable.

The MLA and former first minister was speaking to the Fermanagh Herald as she lodged her election papers for the March vote.

She was asked would a minister be ultimately responsible if the RHI public inquiry found their special advisor had acted improperly.

"No," Mrs Foster responded.

"As we have very clearly said if any special adviser did act improperly then they were doing so on their own behalf."

This comes after Department of Economy permanent secretary Andrew McCormick, who was the civil service head in the Enterprise Department during the time the scheme was closed told the Public Accounts Committee that the actions of a special advisor, were the minister's responsibility - even if those actions were unauthorised.

The inquiry into the £1billion RHI scheme is to open on February 1, chaired by Sir Patrick Coghlin.

Westminster's Treasury department is set to cover £660million of the scheme's cost, with Stormont and the Northern Ireland taxpayer landed with the remaining £490m.

“I certainly don’t fear a public inquiry,” the DUP leader added. “My integrity is intact, I have done nothing wrong and that will be shown.”

Mrs Foster also hinted that Michelle O'Neill may have questions to answer over the scheme after reports the Department of Agriculture promoted the scheme when she was minister.

In an interview with the Irish News this week Mrs O'Neill said she was unaware of how costly the botched scheme was until February last year and that the scandal was “entirely of the DUP’s making” and she was not answerable "in any way" over the matter.

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

Earlier Mrs Foster confirmed she had 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 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 later 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 as it was hearsay evidence.

She told BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics programme: "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."

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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