Days after being named Sinn Fein’s new leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill has come under pressure to explain what she knew about the botched RHI scheme.
Mrs O’Neill, who was the agriculture minister from the scheme’s inception in 2012 until it was closed to new applicants in February 2016, has consistently denied she was aware of how generous the subsidies were.
However, a report emerged yesterday claiming that the department under her watch organised almost 60 workshops “for farmers interested in the Renewable Heat Incentive”.
The article said documentary evidence details how several officials from Mrs O’Neill’s department stressed the financial benefits of the scheme.
Earlier this month, Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister following a prolonged campaign for Arlene Foster to stand aside as first minister while an investigation into the RHI’s potential £490 million overspend took place.
Commenting on the new information, the DUP’s Christopher Stalford said the strong promotion of RHI by the agriculture department shows the March 2 election has been triggered “to allow Sinn Fein to advance their own agenda”.
Mr Stalford added: “Sinn Fein used RHI as a cover to collapse the institutions at Stormont”.
Mr Stalford said it was now clear that while DETI failed to “identify the fundamental financial flaw” within the scheme for many years, that failure was replicated within the agriculture department.
“Despite attempts to portray otherwise, it is now clear that more than one government department was promoting the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, including the financial incentives available.
“Michelle O’Neill has said within the last few that she only became aware of how ‘generous’ the RHI scheme was in February 2016. However, throughout the entire life of the RHI scheme she was the minister at the head of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.”
Mr Stalford added: “Do the accusations from Sinn Fein that [the then DETI minister] Arlene Foster bears responsibility for the departmental failure to identify those problems now also apply to their own leader too?
“These facts once again highlight that this election has nothing to do with the RHI scheme. Sinn Fein used RHI as a cover to collapse the institutions at Stormont and that is why the focus over the last few weeks has been on the Irish Language Act, dealing with the past and a shopping-list being put forward by Gerry Adams to advance their own agenda.
“It is vital the public inquiry can get to the bottom of the RHI scheme, but as time passes the true motivation behind political events of the last few weeks is becoming abundantly clear.”
The Times article was based on documents providing details of the seminars which also featured input from DETI (Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment) officials.
It highlights one presentation about renewable energy opportunities at the CAFRE campus at Greenmount on October 29, 2015 – less than three weeks before the final cut-off point on November 19, 2015 to avail of the most lucrative subsidy tariffs.
Sinn Féin rejected Mr Stalford’s claims as a desperate attempt “to deny responsibility for their mishandling and incompetence of the RHI scandal”.
A Sinn Fein spokesman said: “As DETI minister, Arlene Foster was the architect of the botched RHI scheme which was stripped of cost controls, the DUP finance minister Sammy Wilson signed off on the scheme without safeguards on cost, Arlene Foster’s department oversaw the operation of the RHI scheme and there are allegations that the DUP interfered to prevent the closure of a scheme, which could cost the public £500m.”
He added: “The Department of Agriculture had no role or part in the design, management or application of the flawed RHI scheme.
“This flawed scheme is the sole responsibility of DUP ministers.”
“Their dismissal of equality provisions for women, for Irish language speakers, for our LGB&T community and for young people as a ‘shopping list’ shows that their contempt for the public knows no bounds.”
Commenting on the October presentation at CAFRE, an agriculture department spokesman said: “A Practical On Farm Renewable Energy event... discussed technologies such as; wind power, biomass fuel quality, heat from biomass, grid connection, Renewable Heat Incentives and Renewable Obligation Certificates”.
• Michelle O’Neill has defended promoting RHI, saying “there were no particular concerns about it” at the time.
She said: “My department promoted a wide range of grant schemes for farmers, most run by the EU, some by the Department of the Environment and some run by Arlene Foster’s department (DETI), as well as our own schemes.
“I did not attend any of these events.”
Mrs O’Neill added: “There was of course widespread knowledge of the RHI scheme among MLAs, the energy industry and the media as it was well publicised. At that time there were no particular concerns about it. When Sinn Féin became aware of the concerns around the scheme we took decisive action to end it in the interests of the public purse”.