Arlene Foster says she was ‘unaware’ if DUP donors’ benefit from RHI
Arlene Foster has said she is “unaware” whether any business or individual who benefited from the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme is a DUP donor.
In her witness statement to the RHI Inquiry, the DUP leader denied that her party was “very concerned to deflect or discredit” any possible reference to its current chief executive, Timothy Johnston, regarding RHI.
And she rejected claims that the party leadership had formulated an agreed line regarding the cash-for-ash scandal.
“There was no ‘DUP’ or ‘party’ narrative to this effect,” she insisted.
Mrs Foster is set to give evidence to the inquiry headed by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin today. Her performance could have major implications for her survival as DUP leader.
In her witness statement, Mrs Foster said she couldn’t recall, was unaware of, didn’t know, or didn’t recollect events over 40 times.
She was asked whether any person or business that has received or is receiving subsidies from the RHI scheme was a donor to the DUP.
The DUP leader replied: “Insofar as this is in my knowledge I am unaware.
“However, the DUP (in common with other political parties) would, for example, hold fundraising events such as dinners or business breakfasts.
“It may well be the case that people receiving subsidies, or otherwise benefiting under the scheme, purchased tickets to attend these events but their status in relation to the RHI scheme is not something that would be enquired about, monitored, or recorded in any way.
“The treasurer of the party reports the total income raised from these events to the Electoral Commission in accordance with the relevant legislation.”
She gave the same answer when asked if anyone who benefited from RHI as a supplier or installer of biomass boiler plant or as a supplier of wood pellets was a DUP donor. When asked if Northern Ireland poultry giant Moy Park or the Ulster Farmers Union was a donor to the DUP during 2011-16, she again gave the same response.
Mrs Foster denied there was a strategy by the DUP to protect her as its leader over RHI or to distance her from decisions relating to the cash-for-ash scandal.
“No, there was no general approach to protect me as party leader,” she said.
In relation to RHI documents being changed to allegedly cleanse them of references to her, Mrs Foster said: “As I understand it the reference that was removed was to the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and not me in a personal capacity.”
Former Department of Trade, Enterprise and Investment (Deti) permanent secretary Dr Andrew McCormick has told the inquiry the DUP was concerned to deflect or discredit any possible reference to Mr Johnston.
He claimed the party had ultimately acquiesced with the necessity — as it appeared at the time — of naming its special adviser Dr Andrew Crawford as the instigator of RHI cost control delays.
Dr Crawford had several close relatives with RHI boilers. He appeared before the inquiry earlier this month and denied any wrongdoing.
Mrs Foster said: “While there was no party narrative, I do believe that there was a prevailing view that Timothy Johnston was not involved in delaying the introduction of cost controls.”
The DUP leader took issue with some of the written questions she was asked by a solicitor for the public inquiry.
She stated: “This question and those above at a and b assume that Dr McCormick is correct in his suggestion that there were attempts to deflect or discredit reference to Timothy Johnston. There were no such attempts.
“I recall no such discussions about deflecting or discrediting reference to Timothy Johnston.”
Mrs Foster also addressed a meeting she had with former DUP Deti Minister Jonathan Bell about the closure of the scheme, after cost controls had been imposed.
Mr Bell wanted to shut down the scheme as soon as possible in February 2016, when others wanted to allow time for businesses still applying to complete the process.
Mrs Foster stated: “I recall Timothy Johnston and I trying to explain to him that, in light of the public outcry, keeping the scheme open for a further period of time was taking account of the public’s concerns.
“Jonathan Bell was completely opposed to the idea of any additional time from the outset.
“I do not recall him telling me at that time that he would make an announcement to extend by a further period, but he subsequently did announce an additional two weeks so that the scheme would eventually close on February 29, 2016.”
When asked about the role she or her special advisers played in relation to closing the RHI scheme, Mrs Foster said: “I understand that there were discussions between the FM (First Minister) and DFM (Deputy First Minister) special advisers regarding when the scheme should be closed and the procedure for so doing.
“I was aware that these discussions were taking place but did not have a direct input into these.
“I had already communicated to HOCS (the Head of the Civil Service) that steps should be taken to urgently cease accruing further liabilities under the scheme. My special advisers were tasked with liaising with other special advisers to ensure this took place in a manner that would be acceptable to the Assembly.”
The DUP leader was asked if she or Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness had been aware of text messages between special advisers expressing a desire for a “soft landing” for the RHI scheme out of the Executive.
“I do not believe we would have been aware of the text messages between our special advisers but like all issues we would have wanted the matter announced appropriately,” she said.
When asked if ongoing discussions and negotiations to delay RHI’s closure was brought to the attention of the members of the Executive either prior to or during the Executive Committee on February 10, 2016, Mrs Foster replied: “I cannot recall any discussion about the suspension/closure of the RHI scheme save that the urgent decision to close the Scheme was noted.
“Colleagues around the table would have been provided with the paperwork behind the decision to take an urgent decision but I cannot recall any issues being raised.
“It is not unusual where an urgent decision is noted for there to be very little discussion at Executive meeting.
“This is because the decision had in effect already been taken and the Executive was at that stage being formally notified.”