During 80 days of hearings, the public inquiry into the cash for ash scandal which toppled devolution has rocked Stormont’s political and civil service establishment.
A slew of revelations has exposed a dark underbelly of jaw-dropping incompetence, nepotism and secrecy in significant sections of the devolved administration which for a decade had been responsible for an annual budget of more than £10 billion.
The scrutiny of how the Northern Ireland Civil Service operates is particularly significant because it is those civil servants who have been running Northern Ireland without any democratic oversight for 18 months, due to the collapse of devolution and the government’s refusal to take charge by implementing direct rule.
The inquiry is investigating the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a green energy scheme set up by DUP leader Arlene Foster’s then department but which not only cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds more than it should have, but ended up harming the environment by incentivising the running of boilers for long periods.
Here are ten of the most eye-opening revelations from the first seven months of the RHI Inquiry:
1 Civil servants hired expert consultants to advise them on setting up an RHI scheme. However, the £100,000 report was going to recommend a grant scheme – rather than an ongoing incentive – as the best option. Consultants CEPA told the inquiry that the department did not want that message and effectively tampered with what were subsequently presented as the findings of independent experts. CEPA “negotiated” its findings and fudged its recommendation. A key reason why officials wanted an RHI scheme rather than a grant system was that the grant scheme would cost £3.5 million from their budget – despite being £300 million cheaper overall.
2 Within four weeks of the RHI scheme’s launch in 2012, the renewable energy industry had worked out that those who installed biomass boilers could make “profit” from the scheme. In a brochure, one boiler installer was marketing RHI - at events where civil servants present - as “cash for ash”. Yet it took civil servants three and a half years, after the scheme had closed, to work out why there had been such stampede to get boilers installed before cost controls: The cost of fuel was lower than the subsidy, with no cap on usage - a perverse incentive to run boilers for profit.
3 Arlene Foster didn’t even read the legislation which established the scheme and which she tabled in her own name in the Assembly. Under questioning about one of multiple deficiencies in the regulations, Mrs Foster said she “imagined it would have been defined in the legislation”. When asked if she had at any stage read the legislation, Mrs Foster said: “No. No, I didn’t. So there’s…absolutely not. I didn’t read the regulations.” Mrs Foster had previously boasted of her attention to detail, saying: “Detail is important. For someone from a legal background like myself this is a given.”
4 Despite being the minister who set up the scheme and who was in charge of it for most of its existence, Mrs Foster was emphatic that she feels no personal responsibility for the mess which happened on her watch. At the start of four days of evidence, she was asked “a question with which many of the public may be concerned, and it’s this: Are there any of the mistakes or errors in relation to the RHI scheme which you’ve identified for which you bear any measure of personal responsibility?” Mrs Foster responded that the way in which the scheme had ended up being the subject of the inquiry was “a matter of deep regret for me” but it was “difficult to see what I could have done differently at that time”. It was put to Mrs Foster that she seemed to be saying that with hindsight there were things she would do differently but at the time she didn’t do anything which was wrong. Mrs Foster said: “That’s correct. Yes, that is my position.”
5 As the RHI scheme ran out of control in 2015 and some DUP figures were working to delay belated efforts to rein it in, Mrs Foster’s long-standing special adviser (Spad), Andrew Crawford, believed that it could be good for it to overspend. Writing to a fellow DUP Spad, he was wary about some of the proposals to cut spending, saying: “I am a little confused over what the problem is...the scheme is being funded from AME [demand-led spending coming directly from the Treasury] and therefore if we go over our 4% target all that will happen is that we will get more than our fair share of the UK pot...I would have thought that this is to Northern Ireland’s advantage”. At the time, he was adviser to the then Stormont finance minister - Mrs Foster - who was responsible for ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spend wisely. The day that senior civil servants realised that the entire overspend was coming from Stormont’s budget was “a day of complete dismay”, one official told the inquiry.
6 As RHI was imploding, Dr Crawford was letting his relatives know that the lucrative subsidy would soon be ending. He forwarded to his cousin Richard a confidential ministerial submission - attached to an email whose subject included the words “urgent cost controls” – which made clear that the scheme was in serious financially difficulty and there was a need to “urgently implement cost control measures to manage future RHI expenditure”. Dr Crawford, who has admitted his actions were “inappropriate”, sent similar information to Joan and Wallace Gregg, his sister and brother-in-law, who were considering joining the scheme but ultimately chose not to do so. Richard Crawford subsequently applied to the scheme but has said he was in the process of installing boilers before receiving the document.
7 Dr Crawford wasn’t just forwarding confidential government information to family members. He sent commercially sensitive information (unrelated to RHI) to Gareth Robinson, the lobbyist son of the then DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson. The Spad sent a highly confidential Stormont legal letter and then a confidential Whitehall consultation document to the lobbyist, with at least one of the items destined for a major corporate client of Mr Robinson’s. In evidence which suggested a level of nepotism, Dr Crawford told the inquiry: “Obviously, Gareth was Peter’s son and because of that I tended to respond to his queries probably quicker than I may have responded to some other PR companies’ queries.”
8 As one Stormont department was desperately trying to rein in the scheme, knowing that it had broken its budget, another department was busy promoting RHI. And even in the department trying to cut spending the two main officials working on the scheme were freely giving out commercially valuable information to boiler installers - which unsurprisingly led to people piling into the scheme, at vast cost to taxpayers. Both men say they acted out of naivety and they do not appear to have made any attempt to hide their contacts with the industry.
9 Northern Ireland’s biggest private sector business, Moy Park, was linked to about half a billion pounds of RHI claims. It received inside information from Arlene Foster’s Spad, Dr Crawford, that the scheme was to be closed - giving it extra time to install boilers itself and get many of its farmers accredited for the 20-year subsidy before the door was closed. Evidence about the business practices of one of Europe’s biggest poultry processors showed that it received an indirect subsidy from RHI, allowing it to cut the proportion which it had to pay for heating poultry sheds. The firm knew how lucrative the scheme was and that it was open to abuse, with a senior company figure saying in an internal email that there was “more money in burning pellets than raising chicken”.
A culture of secrecy at the top of Stormont led to civil servants consciously not taking minutes of many meetings - in breach of their own rules. David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service who is now running Northern Ireland without ministerial oversight, said that the lack of minutes was linked to the DUP and Sinn Féin being “sensitive to criticism”, so “we got into the habit of not recording all meetings on the basis that it is safer sometimes not to have a record that might, for example, be released under Freedom of Information, which shows that things that might have been considered unpopular were being considered”. Alongside this, Dr Crawford had a system whereby he passed “political” messages to Mrs Foster on Post-It notes which were immediately binned and thus could not be released under FoI.
The RHI Inquiry resumes on September 4.