The most senior Sinn Féin adviser to Martin McGuinness has admitted that he was given whistleblower allegations that RHI claimants were heating empty sheds – just days before Sinn Féin agreed to keep RHI open for another fortnight.
However Aidan McAteer, the Sinn Féin ‘super spad’ who because of an IRA conviction was barred from being a special adviser but was put in a quasi-Spad role by the party, insisted that he had never told the deputy first minister about the allegations.
The issue is significant because at the height of the scandal last year Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill claimed that her party “shut it down straight away” when the problems became clear.
And in October,former Sinn Féin finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir presented the final two-week extension to the scheme – which cost taxpayers tens of millions of pounds – in benign terms.
He told the inquiry that Sinn Féin felt that “we’re going to try and get a grace period for these ordinary, genuine applicants”.
By that stage, the scheme was operating with cost controls – but keeping it open added significantly to the bill to taxpayers.
In late January 2016, a constituent of Arlene Foster passed to her a whistleblowing note alleging widespread serious abuse of the scheme, including the claim that a farmer was heating an empty shed to collect £1 million and businesses were wasting heat to make a fortune. The note was separate to much earlier attempts by businesswoman Janette O’Hagan to get Mrs Foster to understand that the scheme was disastrous.
Mrs Foster told the inquiry that she believed she had told Mr McGuinness of the whistleblower’s letter at that time – and that even if she had not, that the head of the civil service Sir Malcolm McKibbin would have done so.
Sinn Féin reacted furiously to that evidence. Michelle O’Neill read a statement which said that “any attack on [Mr McGuinness’s] integrity in government is spurious” and “disgraceful”.
She said such “attacks” would be “robustly challenged” and referred to legal action against a DUP politician.
However, it has now been accepted by Sinn Féin that some of its senior advisers were given the whistleblower’s note by Sir Malcolm McKibbin, the head of the civil service.
Mr McAteer told the inquiry in a written statement: “I am now aware that following the briefing [Sir Malcolm’s] office sent an email to the dFM’s private secretary and to his adviser Mark Mullan.
“The next day this email was forwarded to me from another adviser Conor Heaney. By this stage I was already involved in the most intensive efforts to deliver the earliest possible closure of the scheme.”
Mr McAteer, a veteran and senior republican, went on: “The abuse letter was emailed to me (and other members of the dFM team) after appropriate action to investigate had already been taken by [Sir Malcolm] and did not therefore require any action by the dFM team.
“I know now that the communication was sent to me on 29 January, but it is clear from that email that it was for information only, that the allegations were already being properly pursued and that no action was requested or expected in response to the email...I did not bring this to the attention of or discuss this with the dFM as the content of the email underlined the validity of his instruction that the scheme be closed as early as possible.”
He also rejected as “unsubstantiated allegations” the evidence of several DUP figures that Sinn Féin either asked for or demanded a two-week delay to closure, something he said was in fact the “collective view in the FM and dFM offices that this was necessary to minimise the threat of legal challenge”.
Evidence already given to the inquiry shows that Sinn Féin was publicly and privately taking credit for securing the delay, with Mr Ó Muilleoir privately telling a woman hoping to install a boiler that the party wanted to see as many people in her position getting approval as possible.
Mr Mullan, another spad to the deputy first minister, said that he had “no recollection of Malcolm McKibbin mentioning the letter”. Mr Mullan added: “He may have done so but his clear focus was on the budget implications resulting from the Autumn 2015 spike in applications”.
Mr Mullan said he had “no record” of having received the email to the personal email address “which is the one I routinely use” but that “without access to [his former] departmental [email] account, I cannot check if it was sent there”.
He added: “To my knowledge, the deputy First Minister was not made aware of it”.
When asked if he had brought it to Mr McGuinness’s attention, Mr Mullan did not directly answer the question, saying instead that “I was not dealing with the issue” because by then Aidan McAteer was working on RHI.
Mr Mullan said he disagreed with Mrs Foster’s claim that Mr McGuinness was aware of the letter by late January 2016 and that Mr McGuinness first learned of the RHI problem on January 28.