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RHI farmers victimised, claims union

By Allan Preston

The Ulster Farmers Union has said many of its members are being subjected to "victim shaming" in the fallout from the botched RHI energy scheme.

The UFU claimed reports had been "trying to imply that legitimate users (of the RHI scheme) have done something wrong", shifting the focus away from the the flawed design of the scheme.

Yesterday a newspaper named Harry Sinclair as the third former president of the UFU - following John Gilliland and Ian Marshall - to have signed up for RHI.

The story stated Mr Sinclair joined in October 2015, when the pending closure of the scheme caused a spike in applications.

Mr Sinclair declined to say how many RHI boilers he currently has on his farm in Draperstown, but insisted he signed up to the energy scheme honestly.

Questions were also raised about his links to the former DUP special adviser Andrew Crawford, who advised Arlene Foster when she established the scheme as Enterprise Minister.

Dr Crawford quit his role in January after a senior civil servant claimed he was behind a decision to keep the RHI scheme open longer than necessary.

Mr Sinclair insisted that while he considered Dr Crawford a friend, he had not discussed the RHI scheme with him.

Yesterday the UFU said farmers were being picked on as "soft targets" to blame the mishandling of the RHI scheme on ahead of the election.

It also confirmed the family of current president Barclay Bell has a single RHI boiler used on farm woodland to dry grain.

Wesley Aston, UFU chief executive, said: "It is wrong to see farmers as soft targets and to seek to draw into the scandal people who invested a lot of their own money in boilers to replace other, less efficient on-farm energy sources," he said.

When former DUP Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell moved to close the scheme in 2015 over fears of spiralling costs, the UFU pushed for a grace period, allowing an extended window for applications.

Mr Aston said that as many farmers had invested a great deal of their own money with investment plans and capital commitments, it was unfair to abruptly close the scheme.

"We will always press for fair treatment for our members. We did so over a grace period," he said.

"This was with officials, and not with politicians or special advisers."

He added it was unsurprising that farmers in the UFU had been "encouraged" to embrace the RHI scheme by both the Government and those buying what they produce.

Mr Aston argued that the affected farmers were also victims of a scheme put in place by the Government without adequate controls.

"It seems that with the election under way some are now seeking out soft targets over RHI," he claimed.

"I would suggest they turn the focus back to where the blame should be - on a poorly designed scheme and the lack of Government audits to find and punish those breaking the rules.

"Instead, they are allowing those with things to hide to divert the media into chasing those who have done nothing wrong."

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