Renewable Heat Incentive boiler owners fighting to stop publication of their names are being used as a political football, the High Court heard on Wednesday.
Counsel for a group of operators claimed Democratic Unionist Economy Minister Simon Hamilton wanted to reveal their details in a bid to embarrass others amid suggestions that his party’s “cronies” benefited from the botched scheme.
Gerald Simpson QC told a judge that identifying users was part of a plan to deflect attention from the Department and went against civil service advice.
The barrister said: “The overriding public interest, he seems to suggest, is ‘there’s been a lot of criticism of the DUP, I want to see everybody else tarred with the same brush’.”
More than 500 members of the Renewable Heat Association of Northern Ireland are challenging the Minister’s decision to publish a full list of RHI non-domestic operators.
Their lawyers contend that the move breaches privacy and data protection laws.
Disclosure would also create a media “feeding frenzy” and lead to a “witch hunt” of individuals who have done nothing wrong, they argue.
The department’s lawyers claim, however, that the public interest in knowing about the scheme outweighs any right to anonymity.
An interim injunction against identification of Association members remains in place until the court battle is decided.
Mr Hamilton was set to publish the names of RHI users last month amid unrelenting controversy.
The RHI scheme was set up to encourage businesses to move from using fossil fuels to renewable heating systems.
But with users legitimately able to earn more cash the more fuel they burned, the initiative could end up costing the public purse up to £490m.
The fall-out from the revelations was a major factor behind Stormont’s collapse and next week’s snap elections.
A public inquiry into the whole process is to be chaired by retired appeal court judge Sir Patrick Coghlin.
Judicial review proceedings against the plans to name recipients were issued by Michael Doran, chairman of the Association.
Mr Doran, who also heads up not for profit group Action Renewables, does not have a boiler and receives no subsidies under the scheme.
But he is representing hundreds of non-domestic operators, including poultry and mushroom producers, seeking an order quashing the Minister’s plans to reveal their details.
The court heard that 93% of those on the scheme had confirmed they objected to being named, citing concerns about being stigmatised, safety issues and the impact on their businesses.
During submissions Mr Simpson claimed the move to publish their names was part of a bid to deflect attention from the Department, rather than any desire for transparency.
Civil servants clearly advised the Minister that disclosure was not recommended, he stressed.
Mr Simpson then set out his view that publication was motivated by the criticism surrounding the DUP.
“It’s clear that these people, the applicants in this case, are being treated as a political football,” he argued.
“The difficulty with the measured view put forward by the Civil Service, when contrasted with the Minister’s view, is that the real reason behind this becomes clear.
“It’s a matter of notoriety that there’s been a significant suggestion that the DUP’s cronies have benefited from this scheme.
“It appears to be obvious political tit for tat.”
The barrister went on: “We respectfully say that notwithstanding the quite proper assertions by the Civil Service, the real truth behind this is ‘get the names out there and see how many people we can embarrass.”
The case continues. ends