Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill in firing line over RHI as role of her department in hyping faulty scheme revealed

UUP’s Beattie in call for new republican leader to step aside

By Sean O'Driscoll and Claire O'Boyle

Michelle O'Neill is facing calls to step aside as Sinn Fein's leader in Northern Ireland, and from any future Executive role, over revelations about her part in the 'cash for ash' scandal.

New documents have revealed the Department of Agriculture ran 58 workshops to promote the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) under the leadership of Mrs O'Neill during her time as Agriculture Minister. She is expected to be positioned as Deputy First Minister by her party after the March 2 elections.

This week the Mid Ulster MLA claimed she had no responsibility for the controversial RHI scheme, and directed blame solely at the DUP.

But seminars organised by Mrs O'Neill's department stressed the financial benefits of the programme throughout its existence - even pushing the scheme to potential participants as late as October 29, 2015, during the now acknowledged 'spike' period in applications.

The Department of Agriculture presentations to promote RHI included documents from the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and a DETI official even spoke at its 'spike period' event.

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said he was stunned by the revelations, and demanded Mrs O'Neill step aside from her role as Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland and any potential future role in the Executive until vital questions were answered.

He also insisted she should play no part in the running of any RHI inquiry.

"I would say very strongly to Michelle O'Neill, you have made a very serious mistake here because in the middle of the spike, when it was just weeks from closing down, your department was holding a seminar to say how financially wonderful it was," Mr Beattie said. "We all, quite rightly, pointed the finger at Arlene and said 'step aside pending an inquiry'. Now people need to point that finger just as strongly at Michelle O'Neill.

"She should not be sitting in the Executive Office after the election with this cloud hanging over her. She should consider her position in her party going into an election. And vitally, it was one of her own minsters, Mairtin O'Muilleoir, who called for the inquiry, and she must not have any part in overseeing it."

Other developments include the fact that many of the Department of Agriculture presentations took place at its College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE), which runs six RHI-funded boilers across three campuses.

A number of its workshops included talks by Tom Forgrave, a poultry industry representative and founding member of new lobby group the Renewable Heat Association for Northern Ireland (RHANI). The Ballymoney farmer was part of the October 2015 'spike period' presentation at the CAFRE college campus in Greenmount, Co Antrim. He spoke to two groups of farmers on the subject of 'Heat from Biomass'.

The seminar also included talks by Department of Agriculture representatives on 'Renewable Payback Times'.

And crucially, just three weeks before the scheme closed on November 19, 2015, two talks were also given by a DETI official about the financial benefits of RHI. A 2013 Department of Agriculture presentation on RHI, taken down from the department's website, has since been supplied to the Belfast Telegraph.

It shows the department organised a presentation for farmers before the scheme launched.

One department official advised potential participants payments would continue for 20 years. He also presented a table on the different levels of payments available, while another department official used a DETI presentation to show farmers the financial benefits.

Mr Beattie said: "There are crucial questions to be asked - did the Department of Agriculture know there were problems before the spike? If they did, why did they hold a seminar which talked about the great financial benefits? Did Department of Agriculture officials know it was going to close within a matter weeks? If they did, why did they carry on selling it? And if they didn't know, why and how didn't they, particularly as a DETI official spoke about the financial benefits during this presentation which they organised?"

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood joined calls for full transparency from Sinn Fein. "These revelations demonstrate that Sinn Féin are yet to come clean on how involved they were in the RHI scandal," he said.

"They show that during the period of the infamous spike, Michelle O'Neill's department were telling farmers to 'get in quick'. If we're not allowing Arlene Foster to hide behind civil servants, then we can't allow her to do so either. Michelle O'Neill is also silent when explaining why Sinn Fein failed to act. If Michelle O'Neill is sincere when rowing in behind the opposition and calling for full transparency from the DUP, then Sinn Fein must open themselves up to full transparency.

"I challenge Sinn Fein to publish all its records and actions on the 'cash for ash scandal'."

Last night Mrs O'Neill denied any wrongdoing. She said: "When I was Agriculture Minister my department was involved in promotional events around the Renewable Heat Incentive, which was run by the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. My department promoted a wide range of grant schemes for farmers, most run by the EU, some by the Department of the Environment and some run by Arlene Foster's department (DETI), as well as our own schemes.

"I did not attend any of these events. There was widespread knowledge of the RHI scheme among MLAs, the energy industry and the media as it was well publicised. At that time there were no particular concerns about it. When Sinn Fein became aware of the concerns around the scheme we took decisive action to end it in the interests of the public purse, despite the objections of the SDLP and UUP, who voted to keep it open."

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