RHI scandal: ‘Devolution was not meant to be like this’

Reg Empey was sad to see the debacle unfolding at Stormont
Reg Empey was sad to see the debacle unfolding at Stormont

A former leader of the UUP who was a key party figure during the era when the Good Friday Agreement was signed has said Northern Ireland’s devolved government “wasn’t supposed to be like this”.

Reg Empey, who led the party from 2005 until 2010 and is now a member of the House of Lords, said that he had always been in favour of a locally-controlled government for the Province.

Such a system, he said, could be expected to allow for locally-tailored policies – which he believed would be a positive thing for raising living standards.

It was therefore sad, he said, “to see the debacle unfolding at Stormont”, in an institution which many had “pinned their hopes on” as a way of governing the Province better than direct rule.

“Then-Department for Trade, Enterprise and Investment minister, Mrs Foster, decided to implement a specific Northern Ireland model of the RHI scheme, differing from that in existence in Great Britain,” he said.

“This is the departure point for her ministerial responsibility for the scheme and for its failures down the line.

“The consequence has been a financial disaster as all can see, and while a cobbled together attempt will be made to reduce the losses, substantial losses there will be...

“With many pensioners at this time of year having to choose between heating their homes or eating properly, the idea that millions that could be going to help them is literally going up in smoke, will for many be hard to take.”

In his statement to the News Letter, he hit out at what he dubbed “the intoxication of some with the sole aim of acquiring power and influence at any cost”.

He added: “Today Stormont would not pass the ‘smell test’ for good, efficient and honest government.

“There have been too many matters that are less than open and honest.

“People want to get to the truth of what has happened – this should be possible in a short time if there is to be any restoration of trust in the institutions.”

Speaking in the Assembly on Monday, Arlene Foster had said that while there were “shocking” failures in Northern Ireland’s RHI scheme, these initially stemmed from an error by departmental officials in how the programme was set up, which went unnoticed.

She stressed that she had a strong record as a politician, and had “nothing to hide” in relation to the RHI scheme.