RHI inquiry: Foster distances herself from whistle-blower email release

Arlene Foster has distanced herself from internal DUP discussions involving her deputy leader and others which led to a whistle-blower being unmasked against her will.

In December 2016, amid huge political pressure on Mrs Foster over the revelation that she had been contacted by a whistle-blower early in the RHI scheme to warn that it was being abused, the DUP press office released a statement from deputy leader Nigel Dodds which demanded that “opposition parties and sections of the media retract allegations” against Mrs Foster.

At the same time, the DUP published an email which Janette O’Hagan – who has since been publicly named at the inquiry – had sent to the department. Mr Dodds claimed that the email, which did not raise concerns, was the only time she had contacted Mrs Foster.

Although her name was blacked out, Ms O’Hagan was furious that people were able to identify her from it.

Yesterday Mrs Foster said that Mr Dodds was “trying to deal with those allegations, wrongly as it turned out”, because he was unaware that Ms O’Hagan had emailed Mrs Foster personally to explicitly alert her to abuse of the scheme.

Mrs Foster, who had passed on an earlier less explicit email to her department, said that she did not properly read the message so missed the word “misuse” and deleted it, assuming that the matter was in hand, although she believes she verbally raised it with officials the next day.

When asked if there was anything more which she could or should have done, Mrs Foster said: “Well, this is all with the benefit of hindsight, Mr Scoffield, because I don’t know what I was doing [that day] ... we can always look for the pursuit of perfection, but I was dealing with quite a busy time and I thought the matter was being dealt with.”

Pressed on the release of Ms O’Hagan’s email, Mrs Foster said that she did not think that she was part of the discussion about releasing the email but that the party believed Ms O’Hagan had said to a Stormont civil servant that she was happy for the email to be released, something Ms O’Hagan strenuously rejects.

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said the inquiry needed to understand how the DUP came to wrongly believe it could release a whistle-blower’s email.

Mrs Foster said she “couldn’t help you with that” because she “wasn’t in the middle of this discussion”.

Sir Patrick said there were several possibilities, “one of which was that she was fed to the wolves”.

In other exchanges, Mrs Foster said she never gave any thought to where the money might come from if the RHI scheme overspent. She said that she never had any reason to believe that was likely.

Mrs Foster also defended her role in the failure to implement cost controls on the scheme, saying that “if a submission comes up saying ‘cost controls, it has to be dealt with, we’ve consulted on it, we haven’t done anything about it – what’s your ministerial decision in relation to this?’” then she would have acted but that “it’s very difficult for me to go rooting around in a department to find what isn’t being brought up to me”.

Mr Scoffield asked her whether she should have done more “rooting around” within her department and, if she was being failed by her civil servants, how a minister in that situation would be more likely to realise the problem.

Mrs Foster said: “I do think as we look in and delve in to energy division, and to a certain extent the workings of the department, it has been quite an eye-opener to me that there wasn’t continuity in terms of schemes so that if the officials changed they had to pick it up as they went along ... so I think it’s a mixture, really, of better process at civil service level in terms of paper trails and also in terms of ministerial interaction, more of us getting into that sort of detail.”

Asked again if she should have been “rooting around” in her department, she said: “Through hindsight of course, one wishes that one had asked more questions in relation to the RHI scheme. But putting myself back at that period in time ... it wasn’t a personal priority of mine within the department; I had other personal priorities. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t interested, before somebody writes tomorrow. It means that my own personal priorities were about economic development ... I did rooting about in other parts of the department I was interested in.”

Mrs Foster also said that she had no sense of how financially attractive the scheme was for participants. Asked if she really could have been unaware of how lucrative it was, she said: “I can assure you that I didn’t pick up anything of that nature because if I had I would have raised it not only with my special advis0r but with my officials as well.”