Belfast Telegraph

RHI recipients list turning into a political football, courts told

By Alan Erwin

RHI boiler owners fighting to stop publication of their names are being used as a political football, the High Court has heard.

Counsel for a group of operators claimed Economy Minister Simon Hamilton wanted to reveal their details in a bid to embarrass others amid suggestions that his party's "cronies" benefited from the botched scheme.

Gerald Simpson QC said identifying users was part of a plan to deflect attention from the department and went against Civil Service advice.

The barrister said: "The overriding public interest, he seems to suggest, is 'there's been a lot of criticism of the DUP, I want to see everybody else tarred with the same brush'."

More than 500 members of the Renewable Heat Association of Northern Ireland are challenging the minister's decision to publish a full list of RHI non-domestic operators.

Their lawyers contend 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.

The department's lawyers claim, however, that the public interest in knowing about the scheme outweighs any right to anonymity.

An interim injunction against identification of association members remains in place until the court battle is decided.

Mr Hamilton was set to publish the names of RHI users last month amid unrelenting controversy.

Judicial review proceedings against naming recipients were issued by Michael Doran, chairman of the association.

Mr Doran, who also heads up not for profit group Action Renewables, does not have a boiler and receives no subsidies under the scheme.

But he is representing hundreds of non-domestic operators seeking an order quashing the minister's plans to reveal their details.

The court heard 93% of those on the scheme had objected to being named, citing concerns about being stigmatised, safety issues and the impact on their businesses.

During submissions Mr Simpson claimed the move to publish their names was part of a bid to deflect attention from the department, rather than any desire for transparency.

Civil servants clearly advised the minister that disclosure was not recommended, he stressed.

Mr Simpson then set out his view that publication was motivated by the criticism surrounding the DUP.

"It's clear that these people, the applicants in this case, are being treated as a political football," he argued.

"The difficulty with the measured view put forward by the Civil Service, when contrasted with the minister's view, is that the real reason behind this becomes clear.

"It's a matter of notoriety that there's been a significant suggestion that the DUP's cronies have benefited from this scheme.

"It appears to be obvious political tit for tat."

The case continues.

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