Arlene Foster has told fellow MLAs that the errors in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme (RHI) – which was launched on her watch as minister – were “shocking”.
She was addressing the Assembly following chaotic exchanges on the floor of the Assembly about how she was able to give a statement in the absence of Martin McGuinness’ backing, since the Executive Office is a joint ministry.
She went on to describe the affair as a “calamity”.
However, she also told MLAs that the debacle had been the subject of “wild claims and allegations”.
She added that at no time when she was minister at the Department for Enterprise Trade and Investment (for several years up until 2015) had anyone recommended that she should introduce cost controls for the scheme (which itself began in 2012).
She added that there had not been “any warning signs” of the problems ahead.
She also dismissed the recent claims by her successor as minister, Jonathan Bell, he was instructed that the scheme must be kept open – just as problems with the overly-generous scheme were becoming clear to him, and a surge of applications for the scheme were being made.
This was, she said, “without foundation”.
In fact, she went on to say that it was her own office which had acted to ensure an “earlier closure of the scheme than would otherwise have been the case”.
It had been believed she would use her speech on Monday to say how to reduce the £400m cost to Northern Irish taxpayers over a 20 year period which the grossly-overspending scheme may bring.
Contrary to what had been expected, she said instead that the Finance Minister will set this out – at an unspecified date in the New Year.
Drawing her remarks to a conclusion, she said that when she was made First Minister less than a year ago, she “could think of no greater honour than to serve my country and the people of Northern Ireland”, adding that “the record shows” that she had always put serving the Province first.
She said she had not been in hiding over the issue, but had been “out and about”, and that she understood the frustration and anger felt by the public over the issue.
At the end of her contribution, DUP members – by that stage the only MLAs in the chamber – banged their desks in approval.
In the absence of any rival MLAs to quiz her, it fell only to her own party members to pose questions – allowing her to hit out at the other parties because they “can’t be bothered to show up and ask me questions”.
She stressed repeatedly: “I have nothing to hide.”
The crux of the scandal focusses on the fact that the Northern Irish scheme was set up in such a way that subsidies would be paid out to applicants for burning wood pellets over a 20 year period, and that these subsidies were more valuable than the actual wood pellets themselves.
Therefore, by installing a boiler and just burning wood pellets all day for no good reason, applicants could make hundreds of thousands of pounds from the taxpayer – a fact that appears to have dawned on many people from 2015 onwards, when there was a large rush to install such boilers.
In response to a question from Nelson McCausland (DUP MLA for North Belfast) about who was responsible for setting the subsidy price above the fuel price in 2012 – the key reason why the scandal unfolded – Mrs Foster acknowledged that “it appears to have been a mistake that was made by DETI officials”.
Initially the subsidy rate was set lower but was then increased on the recommendation of a consultancy firm “following feedback from the industry”, she told MLAs.
The fact that fuel cost less than the subsidy for burning it was actually included in the final business case for the scheme, which was approved by the Department of Finance in 2012, she said.
However, this was apparently not noticed by anyone.
“It was there! It was there in black and white what the wood pellet cost was in terms of the proposed tariff,” she said.
But none of the officials involved – either in DETI or in the Department for Finance – “spotted that that was the case – and therein lies the fundamental problem”.