RHI scheme: Publishing names of Renewable Heat Incentive firms would ensure maximum transparency, court hears
Publishing the names of Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) firms would ensure maximum transparency in a botched scheme that had the "seismic" impact of collapsing Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, the High Court heard on Thursday.
A judge was told DUP economy minister Simon Hamilton's plan to reveal all businesses on the green energy initiative was about ensuring full accountability rather than any alleged attempt to deflect blame from his party.
More than 500 RHI non-domestic boiler operators are taking legal action in a bid to stop Mr Hamilton disclosing their details.
But counsel for the Department argued that there are profound public interest issues at stake.
Tony McGleenan QC said: "We have potential exposure to the public purse of half a billion pounds if cost control mechanisms that are also under challenge by the same applicant are not put in place.
"Not only that, but the political consequences of this scheme have already been seismic."
Stormont's power-sharing administration had been brought down as a direct consequence of the RHI scheme, he contended, with uncertainty over what will follow next week's snap elections.
"Its difficult to conceive of a case that has led not just to the collapse of a government, but the potential suspension of a devolved system of government, but that is this case," Mr McGleenan said.
Investigations into potential wrongdoing by any dormant companies claiming benefits add to the "multi-layered" public interest, the court heard.
The RHI initiative was set up to encourage businesses to move from using fossil fuels to renewable heating systems.
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.
The fall-out from the revelations was a major factor behind Stormont's collapse and next week's snap elections.
But it has been engulfed in controversy and dubbed the 'cash for ash scandal' since it emerged that users could legitimately earn more cash the more fuel they burned.
A public inquiry into the whole process is to be chaired by retired appeal court judge Sir Patrick Coghlin.
Mr Hamilton was set to publish the names of RHI operators last month.
Members of the Renewable Heat Assocition of Northern Ireland secured an injunction to stop publication pending the outcome of their legal challenge to his plans.
Their lawyers contend that the move breaches privacy and data protection laws.
Disclosure would also create a media "feeding frenzy" and lead to a "witch hunt" of individuals who have done nothing wrong, they argue.
Counsel for the group claimed in court they were being used as a political football.
He alleged that Mr Hamilton want to release the list to embarrass others and divert attention from any ministerial and departmental responsibility.
Amid suggestions that DUP "cronies" benefited from the scheme, he contended that the intention was to have everybody else "tarred with the same brush".
However, Mr McGleenan insisted there was no evidence to back assertions he described as coming close to implying an improper motive.
"Both the Minister and the Department have had their interests directed primarily at maximising transparency within compliance with legal obligations," he submitted.
"Far from a capricious act on the part of the Minister, what one sees in this case on behalf of the Minister and Department is a proper discharge of their function to ensure accountability."
Referring to remarks by Mr Hamilton during a Stormont debate, the barrister went on: "What the Minister actually says is that maximum transparency will demonstrate that beneficiaries of the scheme are spread throughout society.
"He's not suggesting in any way this would somehow distract or deflect from his responsibilities, his department's responsibilities, or potential attacks on his party."
Mr McGleenan contended that the public interest in knowing about the scheme trumps any right to anonymity.
Earlier, Mr Justice Deeny was told that a full list of firms on the initiative has been leaked to the media.
Gerald Simpson QC, for the Association, said: "I'm no conspiracy theorist, so I believe the Department hasn't really thought about this, but they should be doing something to protect information which has got into the public domain unlawfully by breach of a data-sharing protocol."
Even though the current injunction only covers the Department, the judge cautioned that the media could also be held liable for disclosing the list under confidentiality rules.
He said: "There's clearly a risk of damages at least if somebody chooses to publish it."
The case continues.