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Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy lobbied Bell to keep RHI scheme going after DUP man’s stand-up row with Foster

By Sean O'Driscoll

Conor Murphy urged Jonathan Bell to keep the Renewable Heat Incentive open - even after Mr Bell had an angry showdown with Arlene Foster and was struggling to have the scheme shut down, it has emerged.

The former Sinn Fein minister issued a Press release on February 11, 2016, in which he said he discussed the closure date with Mr Bell, Enterprise Minister at the time, and "urged him to keep the scheme open to allow those applications to be completed and, thankfully, he has now done so".

He said in the release that closing the scheme on February 15, 2016, would have caused "tremendous difficulties" for those still wishing to apply, and appeared to take credit for extending it to February 29, 2016.

A Freedom of Information request to Ofgem, the energy regulator, shows that the highest uptake for RHI came during the final two weeks in February 2016, after Mr Murphy fought to keep the scheme open.

His constituency in Newry and Armagh had the second highest number of RHI applicants after Fermanagh-South Tyrone.

"I welcome today's announcement that the domestic and non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive scheme will remain open until February 29," he wrote in his Press release.

"I discussed this with the minister and urged him to keep the scheme open."

Mr Murphy's intervention came after Mr Bell had a stormy meeting with Mrs Foster in January 2016, in which he told her that RHI had to be shut down on February 15, 2016.

In a tell-all interview on the BBC last December, Mr Bell claimed that Mrs Foster became "highly agitated and angry" and insisted that RHI continue until February 29.

Mrs Foster agrees she did call the meeting, but said that it was Mr Bell who was angry with her.

She also agrees that she approved the extension of the scheme until February 29.

Mr Murphy said he urged Mr Bell to keep the scheme open for another two weeks as many people still wanted to apply. There were 203 successful RHI applications in those final two weeks, according to Ofgem.

The peak day for RHI applications was February 29, the final day permitted, when 73 boilers were registered.

This is not Sinn Fein's only link to the RHI scheme.

Michelle O'Neill was Agriculture Minister throughout the running of RHI, from its inception in 2011 to its cancellation in 2016, and her department held 58 seminars for farmers in which RHI was promoted.

There was a dramatic spike in applications just before the most generous level of grants ran out on November 19, 2015, at a time when Mrs O'Neill's Department of Agriculture was still heavily promoting the scheme.

Sinn Fein has ruled out returning to government if the DUP nominates Mrs Foster as First Minister or Deputy First Minister while a public inquiry examining her handling of Stormont's botched energy scheme is still ongoing.

Last week Mrs O'Neill said DUP "arrogance, contempt and serious allegations of corruption around the RHI scandal" had forced next month's snap election.

However, Mrs Foster hit back that it was not up to Sinn Fein to decide who should lead her party.

She also said that this election was "an attempt by Gerry Adams to push forward his radical agenda".

Mr Murphy has not yet replied to a request for comment, and Sinn Fein has not yet replied to numerous requests for comments on the party's involvement in RHI.

Mr Bell, who was suspended by the DUP after the BBC interview, is also yet to respond to requests for comment.

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