DUP using RHI claimants to cynically salvage Stormont’s reputation, says Jim Allister
A DUP plan to throw every RHI claimant out of a scheme which Arlene Foster promised would run for 20 years is a cynical attempt to salvage Stormont’s reputation at the expense of others, Jim Allister has said.
In February the DUP energy minister, Diane Dodds, announced that she planned to shut the scheme – which closed to new entrants in 2016 – for good.
Mrs Dodds, whose department has twice slashed payments to a fraction of what they were when Mrs Foster opened RHI in 2012, proposes that most boilers should get a final payment of £35,000 – less than the subsidy which many boilers were getting annually under the 20-year scheme.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of claimants under the non-domestic scheme – which covered biomass boilers, solar panels and heat pumps – have been audited and been cleared of wrongdoing, they have faced a very different perception because of the huge payments they received under the scheme Mrs Foster approved and the political connections which some claimants were revealed to have.
In reality, biomass boiler owners in Northern Ireland now receive a fraction of the subsidies paid to their counterparts in Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland.
Today Mr Allister became the first politician to publicly speak out against how the Executive plans to treat claimants.
In a consultation response to the Department for the Economy – the department which (then named DETI) conceived and consistently mismanaged the scheme in astonishingly basic ways – the North Antrim MLA said that claimants are now being used for political purposes.
Mr Allister said: “For me probably the most telling sentence in the consultation is found at 5.42, ‘... it is not clear how full public confidence in the workings of government could be restored while the scheme is in existence in any form.’
“What a blatant affirmation that Stormont and its ‘reputation’ matters above all else. It’s not the plight of failing poultry farmers or others who put their faith in government that matters, but restoring the reputation of those who spawned the scheme.
“This, it seems, is what this consultation is really all about. That is simply wrong and disreputable.”
Mr Allister said that RHI “was a scandal of the Executive’s making – government, not the participants, made the fatal decision to construct a scheme without tiering. It was the Economy Minister who promised the grandfathering [a legal promise of certainty for 20 years] that drew in so many applicants.
“Now, many of those who responded face not just broken promises but severe financial losses. Decent and honest participants have been hung out to dry by the Stormont Executive. Now, the current proposal is the coup de grace.”
Two DUP politicians have privately expressed concern to the News Letter about Mrs Dodds’ proposals, and questioned her understanding of the complex arguments advanced by her officials to justify slashing payments so drastically and now ejecting everyone from the scheme.
However, no one from the DUP has spoken out publicly against the plan to shut RHI and Sinn Féin has also called for closure of the scheme.
Mr Allister said that the “farcical” consultation implied that the public were being asked for their views when last year’s New Decade, New Approach agreement – the deal which restored powersharing – has already commited the Executive to closing the scheme.
He said there was “suspicion that [the consultation] is timed to try and out manoeuvre ongoing legal challenges” to past cuts to the subsidy. Last month lawyers for Mrs Dodds successfully persuaded the High Court not to hear a legal challenge brought by boiler owners – despite the case having commenced years ago – due to the impending closure of the scheme.
The TUV leader questioned why the consultation document did not suggest the adoption of the GB RHI subsidies – which at the point where ‘burn to earn’ was in operation were less generous than Stormont’s, but are now far more lucrative.
He said: “There should be an option of staying in the scheme but at proper GB-style tariffs. And, if this was a proper consultation, looking at all the options, there would be.”
Mr Allister also argued that the proposal contradicted other parts of government which are attempting to cut carbon emissions.
He said: “The inevitable outcome of closure is resort to fossil fuel reliance – surely, the very thing RHI was designed to challenge. So, where is the joined up thinking in claiming to move towards zero carbon emissions while at the same time driving RHI users back to oil?”
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