Belfast Telegraph

RHI scandal: SDLP's Eastwood demands SF's Kearney withdraws criminal allegations or face legal action

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood
Sinn Fein’s Declan Kearney

By Jonny Bell

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has given an ultimatum to Sinn Fein's Declan Kearney to withdraw allegations of criminal negligence against his party - or face legal action.

Speaking on the BBC's Good Morning Ulster, the Sinn Fein MLA said there should be a public inquiry into the role of the SDLP and UUP over their vote to keep the Renewable Heating Incentive scheme open in a vote in the Assembly last year.

Asked why the RHI scandal blew up just before Christmas when Sinn Fein knew about it for over a year, Declan Kearney said: "Sinn Fein became aware of the issues around RHI when the deputy First Minister was first informed by the head of the civil service around the beginning of 2016.

"And at that stage at February 2 OFMdFM was provided with a briefing and asked for urgent action to close down the scheme.

"That was formally agreed by urgent procedure on February 5.

"Now the scheme was closed down on February 29 in a context where both the SDLP and UUP voted to keep that scheme open.

"Sinn Fein voted to close it down. Maybe we should have a public inquiry and maybe there would be a great deal of public interest as to whether there has been potential criminal or political negligence on the part of the SDLP and UUP."

At the time SDLP MLA Claire Hanna laughed off the claims as "spin".

"We voted to keep the amended scheme which included tiering not the fill-your-boots scheme that [Sinn Fein, DUP] presided over."

"We voted for that in good faith."

Sinn Fein’s Declan Kearney
Sinn Fein’s Declan Kearney
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

Later while discussing a public inquiry into the RHI scheme on the BBC's lunchtime Talkback show Colum Eastwood threatened legal action over the allegations.

He said: "Sinn Fein are not backing this call for a public inquiry and I don't understand why. Instead they are making scurrilous claims about criminal negligence.

"Some people can say things like criminal negligence but if they don't withdraw them, they will find themselves facing very difficult issues in the coming days.

He added: "I am absolutely threatening legal action.

"People can throw around words like criminal negligence - particularly some of the sources it is coming from -   they should stand over that or they should withdraw it or they will find themselves receiving legal letters.

"People can throw out all sorts of distraction politics but when you talk to Naomi, Mike and myself we have been consistent from the very beginning.

"All we want is the truth and accountability.

"And those people who are afraid of it are putting out all sort of distraction tactics out there to try and avoid that.

"We are not afraid of it. We are not afraid of answering the questions as to when we knew what and what we did about it.

"I think others have concerns around that and shouldn't be afraid of a public inquiry but for some reason they are."

Sinn Fein has been asked for a response, as too has the UUP.

The Renewable Heating Incentive has been described as the “biggest financial scandal in the history of devolved government”.

Unlike a similar scheme in England, there was no cap on the payments meaning many businesses profited from the scheme.

Flaws in the scheme were identified in June 2015, however, caps were not introduced until the following November, during which period there was a spike in applications.

Eventually the scheme was completely closed to new application in February 2016, however, £86,000 a day is paid out to those on the scheme.

Government officials as well as serving and former Executive ministers have faced mounting questions to explain how the scheme was allowed to be implemented in the manner it was.

The DUP had been at the centre of the storm as it was its members who oversaw the scheme. Arlene Foster was at the time the Minister for Enterprise Trade and Investment which introduced the scheme.

The former first minister has pledged to cut the RHI overspend to zero.

Timeline: How Renewable Heat Incentive unfolded

November 2012 - Arlene Foster, then Enterprise Minister, announces the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme for businesses.

October 2013 - A whistleblower emails Mrs Foster to express concerns over the scheme.

Autumn 2013 - The woman is referred by Mrs Foster to officials from her Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and she urges them to address the problems.

May 2014 - The whistleblower emails again, after the civil servants appear to do nothing. She explicitly outlines how the scheme was being abused, was paying out exorbitant sums of money, and could not be ignored any longer.

December 2014 - The scheme is extended to domestic customers by Mrs Foster.

November 2015 - With the realisation the funding available for applicants is uncapped, Stormont tightens the rules.

But a massive late surge of 900 applications is received before changes can be made.

January 2016 - Another whistleblower civil servant tells the Executive the scheme is being abused.

February 6 - New Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell (above) makes a shock announcement that the RHI scheme to be scrapped.

February 9 - Michael Doran of Action Renewables warns it will force renewables from "boom to bust."

June - Auditors begin investigating concerns.

July 5 - A damning Audit Office report states a farmer will make £1m of government money just for heating an empty shed. It reveals that more than £1 billion of public money will be paid to Northern Ireland-based businesses by 2036 after they installed new appliances under the RHI scheme.

October - Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) call the mishandling of the RHI scheme "one of the biggest scandals" since devolution. SDLP Assembly member Daniel McCrossan tells officials from government utility regulator OFGEM, which administered the scheme: "It was very clear the department was asleep at the wheel but I am horrified that you too were asleep at the wheel in relation to this."

November - The Public Accounts Committee is told that a £405m hole will have to be plugged over the 20-year lifetime of the RHI.

Dr Andrew McCormick (above), permanent secretary for the Economy Department, says he can't think of any government scheme being worse value for money.

December 2016

12 December: First Minister Arlene Foster says she won't quit over the fiasco following allegations that she did not act appropriately when concerns were first raised about the scheme. It also emerges the brother of a DUP special advisor and a Ferrari showroom have benefited from the error-ridden scheme.

13 December: UUP leader Mike Nesbitt claims to have uncovered the "smoking gun" of Arlene Foster's involvement in the decision-making process in connection with the flawed RHI scheme.

14 December: The SDLP says it will table a motion of no confidence to exclude Arlene Foster as First Minister. Sinn Fein says it won't back the motion. Meanwhile the UUP says the UK Government can no longer ignore the "national scandal".

The DUP's Nigel Dodds hits out at a "scurrilous attempt" to blame Arlene Foster for the botched energy scheme. The party releases what it says is a copy of the 2013 email sent from the whistleblower to Mrs Foster, saying that it raised no specific concerns about RHI.

15 December: Arlene Foster says she has nothing to hide from a BBC interview with former DUP minister Jonathan Bell, who vowed to tell the truth about the scandal, adding the revelations will end his political career.

Jonathan Bell claims DUP advisers attempted to delay the closure of the scheme in its original and generous format. He also said attempts were made to remove references to the Finance Department and Arlene Foster in records. The claims were denied.

16 December: Deputy first Minister Martin McGuinness calls for the DUP leader to stand aside from her role as First Minister while a full investigation is carried out into the scheme. The DUP rejects the call.

19 December: Arlene Foster faced a motion of no confidence as the devolved assembly was recalled for a special sitting to discuss the growing political crisis in the run-up to Christmas. The First Minister apologised for failing to put in place cost controls, but defended her role. The motion of no confidence failed on a cross-community vote.

January 2017:

13 January: Sinn Fein outline how an inquiry should be conducted with the first minister standing aside to allow for a preliminary report to be made in four weeks. A full report would then be published in three months time.

16 January: Martin McGuinness's resignation and Sinn Fein's refusal to nominate a deputy First Minister over Arlene Fosters refusal to stand aside leads to the collapse of the institutions and an election being called.

January 18: Economy Department civil service head Andrew McCromick tells the Stormont PAC insider information that the scheme was to close may have had a significant impact on the £490m overspend. He also said he believed a DUP spad "exerted influence" in keeping the scheme open, but insisted he had no evidence to back it up. That adviser, Andrew Crawford, rejected he attempted to keep it open.

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