Belfast Telegraph

RHI scandal blame extends far beyond Foster but will she survive or suffer same fate as Faulkner?

Our under-fire First Minister's situation bears many similarities to that of our former power-sharing Prime Minister 40 years ago, writes Ed Curran

Of all the unionist leaders forced to fall on their swords and resign over the past 50 years, the last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Brian Faulkner, most resembles Arlene Foster.

From "O'Neill must go" in the 1960s to "Faulkner must go" in the 1970s, to "Foster must go" in 2017, unionism has come full circle and remains as split as ever.

The similarities in the political careers of Faulkner and Foster are particularly striking.

Both made their marks in the business community.

Faulkner was arguably the best Minister of Commerce Stormont ever had.

Foster, until the RHI scandal broke over her head, was regarded as an excellent Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

Both built their reputations at ease among the top brass of industry and commerce, and were noted for their attention to political detail.

Both displayed strident confidence in the face of hostile opponents and, in unionist ranks, both were identified as obvious leaders.

And yet Faulkner - a casualty of the Ulster Workers' Council strike in 1974 - resigned as Prime Minister within six months of presiding over the first power-sharing Executive at Stormont and now Foster, within a year of taking office, is threatened with a similar fate.

If history is not to repeat itself and Foster is to survive, then somehow she has to convince enough people that what happened on her watch in her department was not her fault, but that of others.

While there is no escaping the fact that as minister she was ultimately responsible, in practice she was misled, misinformed, or not told at all about the crucial flaws in the RHI energy scheme, which she championed from its start.

Foster persists in saying she has done nothing wrong. So, is it possible to conclude that she hasn't, and that someone else is to blame for the scandalous mismanagement of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme?

The politicians whose knives are out for the First Minister want nothing short of an independent inquiry, but already there is much in the public domain as to what went wrong from the day and hour Foster introduced the scheme in 2012.

Her interest in the issue goes back much further.

As the minister responsible for energy policy, she is on record commending renewable heat to a then-sceptical public as far back as 2008.

By 2011 her department had commissioned a consultants' report from Cambridge Economic Policy Associates and Ricardo, which anyone can read. Then comes the consultation document for public consumption in 2012, with a foreword from Foster. She writes: "In order for the NI heat market to become more sustainable it is vital that renewable fuel sources are developed and that the uptake of renewable heating technologies is encouraged.

"Financial incentives for the renewable heat market will only be successful if supporting policies are put in place that will ensure that the opportunities presented by these measures are fully realised."

A year later, with the first scheme up and running for non-domestic customers, she provides another foreword for the introduction of the wider domestic scheme.

"Securing a level of 10% renewal heat by 2020 is a very challenging and ambitious target... I am concerned that, whilst this is a sector that requires significant support, budget levels are finite and cannot be breached. I am, therefore, pleased to present proposals on how my department intends to expand the incentives already available..."

The consultation documents contained tables and detailed analysis of the incentives on offer, yet no one, but no one, at Stormont - civil servant, energy adviser or MLA - spotted the potential massive rewards for those who would install biomass boilers and keep fuelling them with wood pellets, day and night.

The alarm bells did not start ringing until Foster had gone to a new post as Finance Minister and Jonathan Bell had taken over. Like Foster, he is also in the dock, standing accused of acting too slowly in closing the scheme before almost 1,000 new applicants had cashed in on its benefits.

Amid calls for a new inquiry, it is easy to overlook the investigations which have been carried out to date, with a procession of advisers and civil servants appearing before the Public Accounts Committee last autumn.

The minutes of these meetings are a matter of public record and freely available on the internet for anyone who cares to peruse dozens of pages of evidence.

The hearings in September and October throw considerable light on who at Stormont, beyond Foster herself, may have been responsible for the mismanagement of the RHI scheme from 2011.

Who bears the prime responsibility for this mismanagement - Foster as minister, if she was aware of the flaws in the scheme, or the Civil Service energy team, if it failed to recognise that the scheme could run away with such a vast amount of public money? To date the focus of attention has been on Foster's political future, but it appears she was in charge of a department whose energy advisers - a team of six to 10 people over her period of office - did not recognise the risks in the RHI scheme or failed to communicate those dangers to her.

Based on the evidence given to the PAC committee, many questions remain for those energy advisers to answer.

Some were named by Andrew McCormick, the permanent secretary, who now finds himself charged with picking up the pieces of the broken RHI scheme and answering for other people's obvious failings.

His evidence to the PAC was particularly illuminating.

He said: "The intention was good but the execution and design were seriously wrong."

The most fundamental mistake was the failure to have a tiered tariff.

No one, but no one, at Stormont questioned this basic flaw, nor was there a proper risk register, as should be the case with any such costly public project. In fact, though £140m was spent over the initial five-year period, no project plan was in place, no proper reviews took place, minutes were not kept of meetings with the energy regulator OFGEN, a body whose role must also come under more scrutiny.

To quote the evidence of Chris Poulton, managing director of OFGEN: "There are things that we would admit to having fallen short on - absolutely - such as the minuting of meetings and how we have formally done things."

Also in the public domain is the July 2016 report from the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland, which revisits the RHI scheme and concludes it "was not properly monitored and controlled by the department who relied solely on the work done by OFGEN".

If some of those earliest applicants recognised they were on to a good thing, they didn't spread the word. Instead, they kept their lucrative knowledge to themselves, to such an extent that the RHI scheme in 2014 was floundering.

McCormick said: "The rate of applicants was way below what we had hoped for."

Perhaps that is why no one raised concerns about cost control and why, when a new scheme was introduced for domestic consumers, an opportunity to review properly the project to date was ignored.

To quote McCormick's evidence: "There is no document. There is no submission to the minister (Mrs Foster) and no consultation report and we cannot find anything for that period." The conclusion to be drawn is that Foster was ill-advised, if advised at all, about any inherent risks in her RHI scheme and had no idea of the smoking gun resting under her ministerial desk.

Was she even concerned at that stage of any budgetary constraints?

The PAC heard evidence that an email sent from London in 2011 on the need for cost controls was ignored or overlooked for four years, another extraordinary example of Stormont's bureaucratic failure.

McCormick's evidence points to what he termed "collective responsibility", stretching from Foster's department to that of the Department of Finance and Personnel, then the charge of Sammy Wilson and ultimately responsible for signing off the RHI budget.

So, the blame game extends further and further into the recesses of Stormont's corridors of power.

What role, if any, did Foster's highly-paid special advisers play?

And what of OFGEN, charged with keeping a close eye on how the RHI scheme progressed, who was applying for its incentives and, most important, who was abusing the public purse?

From the outset no one, not least the minister herself and energy advisers, seems to have fully understood the Cambridge consultants' proposals.

According to McCormick: "The responsibility for that lies initially with those in the energy directorate who drew up the business case, but it has to be said that that responsibility is shared by everyone who was a participant in the approval.

"That includes the casework committee, the Department of Finance and Personnel and everybody who was involved. The primary responsibility is with those who wrote the business case, but everyone who approved it also missed it."

McCormick's conclusion: "That is not acceptable."

Misconduct, negligence, or under-performance? Or a combination of all three?

Clearly, blame extends far beyond Foster, and it will be for the Civil Service to answer for its staff's behaviour and apparent failure to signal up the risks in the RHI scheme and to answer as to why it took until 2015 for the penny to drop.

While the political knives are out for Foster, those who were charged with overseeing the introduction and ongoing operation of the RHI scheme have many more questions to answer as well.

As the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Foster immersed herself in the business community, regularly opening new offices, attending and addressing major commercial conferences and dinners.

She impressed with her energy and commitment and willingness to undertake many 90-mile late night journeys from Belfast functions to her home.

For all that, the public everywhere is asking the same questions as to how and why the whole Renewable Heat Incentive debacle escalated out of control, and we are now left with Stormont and devolution tottering on yet another cliff edge.

Why did Foster and her advisers, with her legal eye and self-proclaimed attention to detail, fail to note anything strange about a scheme where costs were estimated on the basis of a 50 watt boiler operating at 17% of capacity over a year, rather than boilers double that size, burning at 100% capacity 24 hours a day, every day of the year?

Perhaps one of her defences could be that the RHI scheme itself was hardly worth a candle, and might even be considered a failure during her term in office.

Of £25m allocated by the Treasury to fund the initial scheme, only £11m was spent through the poor intake of the incentive, and the rest of the money was returned to London.

It seems that no matter what Foster's department tried, including an advertising campaign in 2014, the business community was not sufficiently interested.

As a result the renewal scheme was hardly at the top of Foster's agenda in a department that was concentrating on attracting new investment to Northern Ireland, which appeared to be the central aim of her role.

None of this absolves Foster from some ministerial responsibility to ensure that the scheme was properly overseen when it wasn't, to recognise that it could be open to such scandalous abuse as we know it is now, and to have enquired more than she appears to have done with her energy advisers about whistleblowers' claims that all was not well.

The evidence to date points far beyond Foster, but the public may still conclude that the buck stopped with the minister, no matter how premature or harsh that judgment may seem at this stage. The First Minister's fingerprints were on the renewable energy policy for almost a decade. Time and again she advocated support for such schemes and even went so far as to emphasise good budgetary practice in its operation.

An independent inquiry looks likely, but whether she stands aside or not, the public knows already from the evidence to date that the proper controls were not in place and that the RHI scheme ran out of control because of serious human failings at Stormont.

Many others were at fault and shoulder blame, but it is hard to see how Foster, as the lead voice, the chief political advocate of renewable energy in Northern Ireland, can walk away unscathed.

At best, if she survives as First Minister she will bear the scars of this debacle well into the future.

At worst, like Brian Faulkner in 1974, despite her hard-earned and well-deserved political reputation, her tenure at the top could be short-lived.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph