A government scheme to encourage the production of renewable energy will cease at the end of this month following a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell proposed the suspension of the Renewable Heat Incentive schemes (RHI) in light of a decision by the UK Treasury to halt funding.
Some reports suggest that up to 2,000 jobs could be lost in the sector as a result.
Speaking during Monday’s debate in the chamber, Mr Bell said that although this initiative - which will close on February 29 despite having been expected to run until March 31 - was no longer sustainable, renewable heat incentives “will still bring £130 million into the Northern Ireland economy over the next five years”.
The Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) has called the suspension of the scheme a “panic decision” - claiming poultry farmers who had invested in new biomass boilers were being hit particularly hard.
Ahead of yesterday’s Assembly vote, the UFU said it recognised the fairness of closing the RHI scheme to new projects, but said those who could prove they had invested in expectation of support should be allowed time to complete the projects before the scheme ends. However, Mr Bell told MLAs that, although he had listened to concerns about the time allowed for people to complete their installations, “we now face a significant pressure going forward because Treasury will no longer fund the entire RHI”.
TUV leader Jim Allister accused the minister of presiding over a “shambles”.
Mr Allister said applicants had a “reasonable expectation” that the scheme would continue and said one supplier in Ballymena had ordered in renewable energy stoves, prior to the sudden announcement last week, and will no longer be able to sell them.
Patsy McGlone of the SDLP said the minister’s handling of the situation was “an unmitigated mess,” and said he knew of one company that stood to lose £1 million and 25 jobs.
Other MLAs from the Ulster Unionist party, Alliance and the Greens also criticised Mr Bell and his department.
Adrian Cochrane-Watson of the UUP said the enterprise committee had witnessed an example of “failure, incompetence and ignorance,” and asked the minister if he would consider his position.
Trevor Lunn of Alliance says it appeared that, “somebody here has been asleep at the wheel”.
Mairtin O Muilleoir of Sinn Fein said his party was supporting the proposal, as the continuation of the scheme would lead to an increased budget deficit.
The motion was passed by 60 votes to 34.