Sinn Féin demanded that the RHI scheme be kept open for two weeks beyond the point where it could have been closed, a former DUP adviser has said.
In evidence to the RHI Inquiry which is backed up by documents obtained by the inquiry, Timothy Cairns said that the reason the scheme stayed open for two further weeks in February 2016 was because Sinn Féin insisted upon the date being changed.
That decision – although made on grounds which could have seemed reasonable at the time – led to the already huge cost to taxpayers of the scheme increasing still further.
And the allegation that it was Sinn Féin which insisted on a delay to closure conflicts with the claim by Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill, who at the height of the scandal in January 2017 said that her party “shut it down straight away” when the problems became clear.
But Mr Cairns, who was special adviser (Spad) to the DUP minister responsible for the scheme, Jonathan Bell, told Sir Patrick Coghlin’s inquiry that the occasion on which Mr Bell alleges Mrs Foster “ordered” him to keep the scheme open was in fact the communication of a deal between the first minister and the deputy first minister, with Sinn Féin agreeing that it would vote for the unpopular measure of closing the scheme if it got the “concession” of a two-week delay to allow more boilers to be installed.
By that stage, the scheme was operating with cost controls and the ‘burn to earn’ aspect had been eliminated, meaning that the final two-week delay was financially far less significant than the delay to cost controls the previous year, which led to a bill of about £500 million.
Nevertheless, if Mr Cairns’s evidence is correct then it shows that Sinn Féin’s vice president was not entirely candid with the public about what her party had done and it may go some way to explaining why the party was initially so resistant to a full public inquiry into the scandal.
Sinn Féin has given at least one written statement and documentation to the inquiry but it is not yet clear whether any Sinn Féin figure will be called to give evidence.
On February 9, Mr Bell met with Mrs Foster in a meeting where the DUP leader asked her minister to keep the scheme open for a further two weeks, which Mr Bell perceived to be a wholly improper.
Mr Cairns – whose two days of evidence was uncomfortable for many of those connected with the scheme, including Mrs Foster – set out a somewhat different version of what transpired.
The Spad, who was present at the meeting in the First Minister’s Parliament Buildings’ office, said that Mrs Foster began by being “up-front and said ‘this is coming from DFM [deputy first minister] side...I mean, this is what’s required to get it through, I think’.”
Mr Cairns said that at that point Mrs Foster expected the UUP, SDLP and Alliance Party to oppose a sudden closure and therefore she needed Sinn Féin’s votes for whatever way the scheme was going to be closed because, in the words of Mr Cairns, “the real politics of this are that the DUP and Sinn Féin could pass anything, acting together”.
He said that his recollection was that Mrs Foster presented the extra two weeks to Mr Bell as “the only way this gets through [the Assembly]”.
Referring to inquiry documentation which he has seen, Mr Cairns added: “I believe that [request] seems to have been coming from Conor Murphy.”
Sir Patrick said: “The reason I ask that is because my impression was that they [Sinn Féin] wanted it closed and if there was going to be a compromise it couldn’t be more than two weeks.”
Mr Cairns said: “No. The DUP position was [to close on] 15 February but the ‘real politics’ was that ain’t gonna close without Sinn Féin; that was my understanding at the time.”
Sir Patrick said: “The only reason I raise it is that we’ve heard nothing about...all of this has been about the DUP; we’ve heard nothing about other views that Sinn Féin may have had. But your answer is that Sinn Féin wanted to extend this delay by two weeks.”
Mr Cairns said: “Absolutely. That is my understanding.”
The inquiry’s technical assessor said that his understanding was that the original proposal was to close the scheme in March but both the first and deputy first ministers had agreed to bring closure forward by four weeks, before Sinn Féin - on Mr Cairns’ evidence - then responded to the lobbying by constituents by asking for that date to be pushed back by two weeks.
Mr Cairns said that Mr Bell was “angry” about the meeting where Mrs Foster said that the scheme would stay open for another two weeks, but said that was less to do with the substance of what was being asked of him than it was to do with “what looked like a flip-flop and the political embarrassment of a political flip-flop”. Mr Bell told the inquiry that his main concern was to be a good steward of public funds, rather than embarrassment. Mr Cairns said he did not recall that but it may have been said.