Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster: Up to RHI inquiry to decide if I was in a position to do anything to avoid disastrous outcome

 

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

Arlene Foster's lawyer has said it will be for the RHI Inquiry to decide if she could have done anything differently to avoid the disastrous outcome of the scheme that left the taxpayer with an estimated £490m bill.

The comments were made in a legal submission by Mrs Foster's barrister Julie Ellison in one of 16 closing statements by key witnesses published last night by the inquiry.

The RHI probe, which is led by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, will hear closing submissions over three days from tomorrow.

This will include a short presentation of the evidence already heard over 111 days, as well as oral submissions from lawyers representing three key players - the Department for the Economy, the Department of Finance and regulator Ofgem.

Oral submissions will also be heard from some of the 27 individuals and organisations who were granted enhanced participatory rights. These include Mrs Foster, former DUP minister Jonathan Bell, a number of the party's special advisers (Spads) and some senior civil servants.

Mrs Foster was in charge of the Stormont department that set up the flawed scheme.

As details of the scandal emerged later, she faced calls to stand down as First Minister. When she refused to step aside, Sinn Fein collapsed the Executive in January 2017.

The public inquiry has since exposed internal rows between senior DUP members and the power wielded by unelected Spads, as well as how codes that set standards for public life were apparently ignored routinely to get business done.

In a closing statement to the inquiry, during which Mrs Foster gave five days of evidence, her lawyer said it will be up to the panel to determine the impact of a "lack of ministerial input" on certain key issues.

Mrs Foster, who launched the RHI scheme in 2012 when Enterprise Minister, previously admitted to the inquiry that she did not read the legislation she introduced to the Assembly in her name.

She also said that she was "accountable but not responsible" for her former Spad Dr Andrew Crawford.

Mrs Foster said Dr Crawford never raised allegations that the RHI scheme was being abused with her, or the potential for a spike in applications.

She told the inquiry she now believes both of those issues should have been brought to her attention when she was Finance Minister in 2015.

In her statement last night, Ms Ellison said Mrs Foster had been "clear that she is accountable to the Assembly for the failings that occurred within Deti during her tenure as minister of that department".

"She has welcomed the inquiry as a means of establishing the facts of what went wrong with the scheme and how to ensure it does not happen again.

"It is clear, however, that there were many issues that were not raised to ministerial level for either information or decision-making.

"It will be for the inquiry to determine the impact the lack of ministerial input on certain key issues has had, and whether, in light of the issues that were not raised, Mrs Foster was in a position to have done anything differently such that the scheme's adverse outcomes could have been avoided."

At the DUP's annual conference last month, Mrs Foster said her party was "deeply, deeply, sorry" for its handling of the RHI scandal, which saw the Northern Ireland taxpayer open to a huge overspend because the scheme paid out more in subsidies than the cost of the fuel, leading to a "burn-to-earn" incentive.

Last night her barrister repeated Mrs Foster's apology "for the mistakes made" by her party in the handling of the failed green energy scheme and that the RHI crisis has been the former First Minister's "biggest regret both politically and personally".

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