Deliberate “fraud and criminality” – rather than any “mistake” or “flaw” – are are at the heart of the RHI scandal, Foyle MLA Eamonn McCann has claimed.
The People Before Profit MLA made the comments under parliamentary privilege during a debate on a public inquiry into the RHI scheme at the Assembly yesterday.
With the only party not in favour of a full public inquiry, Sinn Féin, absent during the debate, MLAs from all parties present gave unanimous support to a full public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 into the RHI scheme.
Mr McCann made an extraordinary contribution to the debate, alleging deliberate “fraud and criminality”, although he did not provide proof for his allegations in the chamber.
He said: “There were ‘mistakes’ and ‘flaws’; we have heard those words here over and over again. Nobody spotted the flaw in the scheme.
“The regulator did not spot it and departmental officials did not spot it, the implication being, ‘How could you expect a poor, simple politician to spot it when all those other people missed it?’
“There might be an explanation for that. When we think of a flaw, we usually think of something that has deteriorated, something that was missed and so on.
“The reason why nobody spotted the flaw is that there was no flaw in the system. There was no flaw at all. This was deliberate, and it was conscious.”
He continued: “I do not accuse any individual of being a criminal or a fraudster; what I say is this: it is a flat fact that there was criminality and fraud. The task is to get to the bottom of that and to hold those responsible to account.”
Earlier, DUP MLA Edwin Poots had struck a more contrite tone than has been the case from his party in recent weeks.
He said: “We owe the public an apology for devising a scheme that was not fit for purpose.
“An important message that needs to be got out there is this: we devised a scheme that was not fit for purpose, we regret that and we need to fix it. That should be the focus of the Assembly and everyone in it. We need to rectify the mistake and move on.”
He added: “We are happy for a public inquiry to take place. We want it done quickly, and I would love to have the information out before an election and stop all of this ‘He said, she said’ trial by media and the hate campaign being imposed on us by the other politicians against Arlene Foster because she is much too successful a politician for their liking.”
Mr Poots went further in his defence of his party leader, saying: “Arlene Foster did not devise the scheme. She was presented with it. She did not ask for it to be changed by civil servants so that it was different from the UK one. She was presented with a scheme and told, ‘This is the best way forward for Northern Ireland’. She accepted the advice of the energy division, which devised it after input from all the specialist consultants and Ofgem. Here we have a fixation with a hate campaign against Arlene Foster.”
TUV MLA Jim Allister said the case for a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 is “unanswerable”.
“The question is this: why have we not already got one? The answer, in large measure, is because the parties hitherto of government have, to this point, blocked such an inquiry,” he said.
“There is nothing like a looming election to focus minds and to try to get on the right side of public opinion.”
Jonathan Bell, a DUP MLA who has found himself at odds with his party over the RHI scheme, said he would repeat “under oath” to a judge-led public inquiry the explosive allegations he had made under parliamentary privilege in the Assembly earlier in the week.
On Monday, he told the House: “These matters can be investigated in this week alongside the very first piece of information given to me in a ministerial office by the DUP party officer who was appointed as a special advisor, Timothy Cairns, which was that I would not be allowed to reduce the tariff on the scheme because Timothy Johnston, the special advisor to the then first minister, and John Robinson, at that time the DUP director of communications and now the special advisor to the economy minister, had such extensive interests in the poultry industry that it was not allowed to be on my ministerial agenda.”
The allegations were denied by the DUP, who branded them “outrageous, untrue and unfounded” and “nothing short of mud-slinging”.