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RHI scandal: DUP MLA Jim Wells reveals four family members installed wood pellet boilers under scheme

'I have no financial interest whatsoever in any of these businesses, but I believe that was important that I make this information public as soon as I became aware of it'

DUP MLA Jim Wells has revealed that four family members, including a brother, installed wood pellet boilers under the Renewable Heating Incentive scheme.

The total RHI spend in Northern Ireland is estimated at over £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.

In a statement on Friday, the South Down Assembly member and former DUP health minister said: "Today I received information from a relative which indicated that four members of my family have installed wood pellet boilers under the RHI scheme

"All of these relatives are farmers who rear chickens for Moy Park Ltd based in Dungannon.

"My brother installed one boiler in September/October 2015 to heat his broiler shed. In August 2014 my two cousins and the husband of a third cousin installed a combined total of eight boilers at three separate farms to heat their sheds.

"All of these farmers have been involved in poultry rearing for well over a decade and the wood pellet burners replaced existing heating systems.

"I have no financial interest whatsoever in any of these businesses, but I believe that was important that I make this information public as soon as I became aware of it."

On Thursday Dr Andrew Crawford, an ex-special adviser to former Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster, resigned from his role at Stormont.

Dr Crawford's resignation was announced minutes after a public inquiry was instigated into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

Dr Crawford stood down 24 hours after he was named by a senior civil servant as the DUP adviser he believed was pressing to delay RHI cost controls.

Dr Crawford said his resignation was an "appropriate" response to the allegations against him, claiming he did not want to be a "distraction".

But he insisted the public inquiry would prove he "acted with complete integrity".

"I am conscious I have become the focus of the story," he said.

He added: "I will be happy to give a full account of all of my actions during this period to the inquiry and for due process to take its course."

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 so.

Dr Crawford's brother is a poultry farmer who is a recipient of payments under the RHI scheme. There is no suggestion his brother is using the scheme inappropriately.

The long-serving DUP adviser, from Beragh in Co Tyrone, has always denied wrongdoing.

At an explosive hearing of the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Wednesday, permanent secretary at the Department for the Economy (DE), Dr Andrew McCormick, said he believed, through hearsay, that influence was being exerted by Dr Crawford on the DUP adviser within DE to keep the scheme running at a high tariff level.

Dr Crawford was at the time working for Mrs Foster, then finance minister. He had previously worked in the economy department with Mrs Foster during the period she first developed the RHI.

At the same PAC hearing on Wednesday, Dr McCormick said he had seen no evidence that Mrs Foster acted inappropriately in relation to the RHI.

Dr Crawford, who recently was working for DUP agriculture minister Michelle McIlveen, is the second DUP party special adviser to face scrutiny this week.

On Wednesday, current DE adviser John Robinson stood aside from any duties relating to RHI a day after it was revealed that his father-in-law was a poultry farmer who ran two RHI boilers.

Mr Robinson said he wanted to avoid a perception of conflict of interest.

Mrs Foster said she accepted his resignation with regret, describing him as a "faithful servant" to the party and the people of Northern Ireland.

"Anyone who knows Andrew Crawford knows he's a very private person and he didn't want to become the story," she said.

Sinn Fein finance minister Mairtin O Muilleoir ordered the public inquiry into the RHI. He said there was a need to "get to the truth".

"This inquiry will be impartial and objective," he said.

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Last week, Mrs Foster called for a public inquiry. She had written to Sinn Fein this week in relation to the establishment of a probe.

In recent weeks Sinn Fein had insisted a public inquiry would have been too time consuming.

Mrs Foster said: "We wanted to say we very much welcome the change of heart from Sinn Fein in setting up this public inquiry. It is something I have been wanting for some considerable time."

She added: "As I have always said and indeed as was confirmed yesterday in (the public accounts) committee I have absolutely nothing to hide so I look forward to the inquiry reporting."

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan met at Stormont House on Thursday evening to discuss the ongoing political crisis that has prompted a snap Assembly election on March 2.

During discussions, the politicians affirmed a commitment to finding a way forward. They also welcomed the RHI inquiry announcement as well as talking about issues related to Brexit.

Mr Brokenshire said it was important to build confidence in the ability of the institutions to deliver and help set the tone for the election to come by establishing an RHI public inquiry.

"I would encourage full co-operation with the inquiry, and hope that it is able quickly and effectively to establish the facts, and provide assurances to the public.

"For our part, the Government will do everything we can to support this independent inquiry."

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