Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein's O Muilleoir: 'I was kept in the dark about RHI - it was a runaway train and we needed to stop it'

Mairtin O Muilleoir giving evidence yesterday
Mairtin O Muilleoir giving evidence yesterday
Sir Patrick Coghlin
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

Sinn Fein's former Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir has said he was left unaware of failings in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

He also told the public inquiry into the botched green energy project that his party and the DUP were drawing "metaphorical daggers" by the time RHI brought Stormont crashing down in early 2017.

A year before, in February 2016, DUP minister Jonathan Bell had announced the RHI scheme would close. At this time Mr O Muilleoir said "the phones lit up" with a number of businesses telling him this was a "big mistake".

As a member of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) committee, he said he was "kept in the dark" about abuse of the scheme.

"I asked Dr Andrew McCormick (Deti's top-ranking civil servant) in the committee meeting if there was a problem of fraud, he told me there was 'no evidence of abuse' of RHI," he said.

"We were getting one side of the picture."

Sinn Fein called for the scheme to be closed in February 2016, but then backed a two-week grace period. The delay has an estimated cost of £91.5m over 20 years.

Mr O Muilleoir said he felt the shutdown was unfair to genuine applicants.

"We thought the immediate closure would cause loss of jobs and loss of business," he said.

"It was a runaway train, we needed an emergency stop, but even an emergency stop requires skill."

Mr O Muilleoir said Martin McGuinness had appointed him Finance Minister in May 2016 because of his reputation for being able to work with unionists.

But he said he was unaware Economy Minister Simon Hamilton had told his officials not to work with his party.

As Finance Minister, Mr O Muilleoir said his officials told him to "go to war" with the Department for the Economy (successor of Deti) to reduce spending on RHI, and that he did not waste time raising the matter with Mr Hamilton.

Mr Hamilton said Mr O Muilleoir only raised the matter three times.

In December 2016 both had a private meeting in Belfast City Hall. A proposed 'buyout' plan from the DUP to bring the scheme under control was leaked to the media.

Mr Hamilton blamed Sinn Fein for this, which Mr O Muilleoir denied.

He said he had been genuinely committed to finding a solution at the time, but the plan was "untenable".

The estimated cost of the buyout was £50m, something he didn't believe the Treasury would pay for.

"My officials blew this out of the water, this wasn't going to work," he said.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin likened the two former ministers to alley cats fighting at a time when public money was at stake.

Mr O Muilleoir then referenced late DUP leader Ian Paisley to explain how relations between the two parties went downhill. He recalled greeting Mr Paisley at Belfast City Hall when he was Lord Mayor.

Asked by a journalist how it felt to be greeted by a Sinn Fein mayor, Mr Paisley was said to have replied: "We meet, we don't draw daggers."

Mr O Muilleoir told the panel: "The reality was that after a BBC Spotlight programme (in December 2016) we metaphorically drew daggers."

Sir Patrick questioned whether it was good enough that the "daggers" prevented the two biggest parties from solving a crisis of public spending.

In January 2017 Mr McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister, which forced a collapse of the Stormont Executive.

Mr O Muilleoir said this was because "the DUP was dragging the institutions into absolute disrepute".

He said an interview Arlene Foster gave to the media without informing Sinn Fein "about how she was going to be the saviour of RHI" was a betrayal.

The last plan to address RHI was presented to the Department of Finance in mid-January 2017.

Mr O Muilleoir originally said he was happy to approve it, but this was delayed after concerns he would have to stand over a "shoddy or botched solution".

He denied Mr Hamilton's claim he was only doing this to gain a political advantage over the DUP.

At the start of his evidence, Mr O Muilleoir was told Sinn Fein breached the rules on appointing special advisers.

The panel focused on Aiden McAteer, someone Mr O Muilleoir said members of Sinn Fein listened to, as he spoke with the authority of Mr McGuinness.

In 2013 a Bill from TUV leader Jim Allister was passed that banned anyone with a serious criminal conviction from becoming a special adviser.

As a former prisoner, Mr McAteer was then barred from working as a civil servant. Sinn Fein kept him on, but as a direct party employee instead of being paid out of public money.

Mr O Muilleoir said Sinn Fein viewed the 2013 Act as an "attack on the peace process" and said that "it was not our intention to discriminate against former political prisoners".

Mr McAteer was no longer subject to the normal regulations of special advisers, but Mr O Muilleoir said he kept to the "exemplary" standard of public life expected at all times by Mr McGuinness.

However, Sir Patrick said this was a "deliberate breach" of policy, which states that people paid by political parties are not allowed to direct civil servants.

He said it was not a satisfactory answer that Sinn Fein was refusing to discriminate against its top choice of candidate.

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