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RHI scandal: DUP special adviser Andrew Crawford resigns amid claims over botched energy scheme

Arlene Foster: I have accepted his resignation regretfully

Dr Andrew Crawford, an ex-special adviser to former Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster, has 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.

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.

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.

The development came on another dramatic day in the Northern Ireland political world, with Sinn Fein veteran Martin McGuinness announcing his decision to quit front-line politics to focus on his health.

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.

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."

Public inquiry

Dr Crawford's resignation was announced minutes after Sinn Fein Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir ordered a public inquiry into the RHI.

Mr O Muilleoir said there was a need to "get to the truth".

The RHI furore precipitated the collapse of Stormont powersharing.

Mr O Muilleoir said: "This inquiry will be impartial and objective. I will not interfere in its work. It will be tasked to get to the truth of this issue."

Last week DUP leader 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 welcomed Mr O Muilleoir's announcement.

"We wanted to say we very much welcome the change of heart from Sinn Fein in setting up this public inquiry," she said.

"It is something I have been wanting for some considerable time."

She added: "Earlier this week I wrote to the other parties, and indeed Sinn Fein, suggesting a way forward and now I am very pleased the inquiry is going to be set up and finally we will get some due process in around these matters and we will get the truth in relation to what happened with the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme."

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SDLP North Belfast MLA Nichola Mallon said: "It is welcome that after months of resisting a public inquiry, after weeks of deriding and debasing the SDLP demand for a public inquiry and within hours of the SDLP Leader renewing his call for a change in their position on a public inquiry, that Sinn Féin have now moved to launch a public inquiry.

"Over the last 30 days of dithering alone, £2.5m of public money has been lost to the RHI black hole by Executive parties resisting the highest standard of accountability on this issue. The Finance Minister must now take the advice of the Lord Chief Justice to appoint a respected judicial figure to oversee this inquiry and give the inquiry full authority to publish their report independently from his office or department. There must be no suspicion of interference."

Ulster Unionist finance spokesperson Philip Smith MLA said: "What on earth is Sinn Fein’s game here?  One minute they are producing their own Terms of Reference for an independent inquiry.   Then they are lambasting others for suggesting the Inquiries Act be used.  Earlier today Declan Kearney was insisting they would not trigger an inquiry.    Yet this afternoon they have totally turned on their heels.

"We are now left with more questions than answers.  We need to know the Terms of Reference.  Will the Lord Chief Justice be asked to recommend a judge to lead?   Will it be a panel of one?  Will Máirtín Ó Muilleoir give a cast iron guarantee not to suspend or fold under powers in section 13 of the Act?   And finally, will there be an interim report as promised in Sinn Fein’s original Terms of Reference?"

Voters in Northern Ireland are set to go to the polls on March 2 after deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest over the flawed scheme.

The money was designed to encourage businesses to use green energy instead of fossil fuels but ended up paying out around £1.60 for every £1 spent on wood to fuel biomass boilers.

There have been allegations of empty sheds being heated in a "cash for ash" scandal.

A call for a public inquiry was backed by the devolved Assembly earlier this week.

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