Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster tells RHI inquiry she has no case to answer over botched energy scheme

 

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster has said she deeply regrets the fall-out from the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme - but still believes she did nothing wrong.

Giving evidence for the first time to the RHI inquiry at Stormont yesterday, the DUP leader said: "It's difficult to see what I could have done differently at that time."

Mrs Foster, who was Economy Minister when the green energy initiative started, said she would not have made the decisions she did if she had been informed of the flaws within the scheme.

"If I had have been made aware of various issues I would have acted differently," she said.

"Clearly the way in which the RHI scheme has brought us to this place is a matter of deep regret for me politically and personally, because obviously we don't have government here in Northern Ireland as a result of what happened in December and January 2016 and 2017."

She claimed RHI had provided a "useful excuse" for Sinn Fein to collapse the Executive.

"In terms of what happened in the scheme, it is for the panel of course to make a determination as to what went wrong at that time," she continued.

"But certainly having reviewed all of the submissions that have been sent to me it is difficult to see what I could have done differently at that time.

"There will be known unknowns and unknown unknowns but certainly there seems to be a lot of unknown unknowns.

"I wasn't brought up to date with things that were happening in the background and I regret that. If that had have been brought to my attention things may have been a lot different."

Mrs Foster gave evidence for just over three hours before the inquiry panel chaired by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin.

She told counsel to the inquiry David Scoffield QC that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) had been a "heavy" one with a broad portfolio and she found the energy aspect "to be a very complex area... if not the most complex area".

It was "one of the more challenging" areas of her work and she "probably did" rely on officials to help her understand it, she said. By contrast, economic development and tourism were her favourite parts of the job.

Asked whether renewable energy was one of her top priorities, she said: "It would be unfair to say I found it interesting, I didn't. I found most of the department to be a positive department because you were making a difference to people's lives."

Renewable energy had to be dealt with in Northern Ireland due to an EU directive, she said.

"If we had decided as 3% of the population [of the UK] that we were not going to do anything on renewable energy I would have come under political attack from other parties," she stated.

Some MLAs were "very keen on renewables", she said, with Green Party leader Steven Agnew often asking why DETI wasn't doing more. She acknowledged that some people in her party weren't keen on the RHI scheme.

Mrs Foster was quizzed about the role of her special adviser Dr Andrew Crawford, who had earlier given evidence.

"He was someone who was very good with detail. He obviously has a doctorate in agriculture. He was very much aware of the issues," she said.

He had "expertise in reading documents" before they were given to her but "I don't think either of us were experts in the energy division", she added.

In his evidence, Dr Crawford said "political advice" would often be written on post-it notes. Mrs Foster insisted only "innocuous" comments were recorded that way. "There was nothing on any post-it notes to my memory that would have caused concern," she said.

When probed further by Mr Scoffield about the advice potentially noted, she said: "We are talking about a post-it note here. We are not talking about an A4 page. It is inconsequential 'Speak to me', 'X won't like this', blah blah blah."

Mrs Foster said it was regrettable that DETI had opted for a "Northern Ireland RHI" and didn't "buy into the GB scheme" but she was "being led by evidence and by officials as to what was the best way forward".

She added: "Now, with hindsight, it would have been better to have been in the GB scheme because clearly then we would have been able to take on board all the things that they were doing with the scheme."

The DUP leader had no recollection of some meetings where RHI was discussed but added that she had a "lot of trust" in her departmental officials. She took "comfort" from the fact that there were a lot of "checks and balances" in the system.

Numerous civil servants and experts had examined the RHI scheme before it went live in 2012, she said.

Mrs Foster will continue her evidence to the inquiry today.

Belfast Telegraph

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