Belfast Telegraph

DUP's Hamilton leaked RHI emails to media in bid to protect advisor

He admits attempt to take pressure off party 'not my proudest moment'

By Allan Preston

The DUP deliberately leaked emails about the botched Renewable Heat Incentive to take pressure off the party, it emerged yesterday.

Former Economy Minister Simon Hamilton admitted it wasn't his "proudest moment" as he gave evidence to the public inquiry into the failed green energy scheme.

The emails from the summer of 2015 detailed contact between officials in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) and those in the energy industry.

They showed Deti officials publicised that the high cash subsidies for RHI were to be cut in the autumn.

This led to a huge spike in applications before the deadline, which burst the scheme's budget.

In January 2017 the political fallout from the RHI scandal reached crisis point.

With Mr Hamilton's knowledge, his special adviser John Robinson leaked these "explosive" emails to the Press and a top civil servant.

This was done to back up a claim by DUP special adviser Andrew Crawford that he wasn't responsible for the 2015 spike.

Mr Hamilton admitted it was not his "proudest moment", but told Mr Robinson he believed they would be "useful" in the public domain.

This sharply contrasted to his earlier evidence in which he said he was "raging" after he believed Sinn Fein leaked a plan to cut RHI cost controls.

The plan, set out in December 2016 by the senior civil servant Dr Andrew McCormick, was to buy out claimants, helping them recoup some of their costs and still giving them a 12% rate of return.

At a cost of around £50m, Mr Hamilton thought it was a good short-term measure, acting as a "tourniquet" to stop a haemorrhaging of public money.

Mr Hamilton said he was then "raging" after the plan was leaked to the media.

He said at the time he blamed Sinn Fein.

"They said they wanted to work with us to find a solution but things were falling apart.

"There was a fear and suspicion on my part they did it. There were examples of briefings to the media that gave an (incorrect) flavour of meetings. Sinn Fein wanted to be seen as the saviour of the whole situation, but if not the DUP were to blame.

"They were blaming the Department for the Economy (which succeeded Deti) including myself."

Mr Hamilton said it wouldn't have been in his own or his officials' interests to have leaked the plans to the media.

He said the mutual belief that the other party was to blame led to the deterioration of relations.

The drama had followed frantic efforts in 2016 to bring RHI under control.

Mr Hamilton told the inquiry panel he was shocked on his first day as Economy Minister in May that year when civil servants told him RHI was "very successful".

In his written evidence he said this showed a "startling lack of awareness" from his officials, who he instructed never to refer to RHI as successful again.

He added that they were "bogged down" with matters like answering questions from the Audit Office.

"People were doing lots of work, there's ample evidence of that, but it wasn't at the heart of the matter to the overspend," he said.

That overspend was threatening to run into hundreds of millions of pounds in public money.

Part of the work to address the scheme's shortcomings was an inspection of biomass boilers used by applicants.

Mr Hamilton said there wasn't enough being done to press ahead with this.

By October 2016 he said he was disappointed by the "shoddy" solutions being presented to him. He said the plans lacked any options about how to reduce costs.

A "significantly wrong-headed and also dangerous" proposal to consult on changes with interested parties, such as the Ulster Farmers' Union and poultry giant Moy Park, was a major worry, Mr Hamilton said.

He said their input would have hindered any attempt to reduce spending, and told officials they had to start again.

Panel member Dame Una O'Brien told Mr Hamilton he should have pressed officials further. He said he accepted he could have "laid down my authority" more than he did.

Dame Una added later: "When things go wrong at that level I would expect someone to take a grip".

Another panel member, Dr Keith MacLean, asked if it was wise to expect solutions from civil servants who failed to spot the problems first time around.

Mr Hamilton admitted his "heart sank a little" in October 2016 when he saw the solutions he was presented with were coming from the same officials who had "gone off the rails" a year before. He said the situation would have been helped if there was co-operation from the Stormont Executive as a whole.

"If there was a big, big lesson about this, that's something we ought to have done," he said.

As a result, he said his department didn't get a "kick in the backside" from Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, First and Deputy First Minister at the time.

Turning his attention back to Sinn Fein, Mr Hamilton accused it of playing a political game in January 2017. Plans to cut RHI spending were put to Mairtin O Muilleoir, who was Finance Minister. Mr O Muilleoir refused to sign off on the plans, which he called "piecemeal" and characterised by "at least incompetence and possibly corruption".

Mr Hamilton then accused Sinn Fein of holding out for political advantage, instead of fairly considering the plan.

Belfast Telegraph

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