Politics of Northern Ireland
Since 1998, Northern Ireland has had a devolved government within the United Kingdom. The Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive together make up the legislative and executive branches of the Northern Ireland government. Members of the legislative assembly (MLAs), of whom there were 108 until 2017, when it was reduced to 90 following The Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, all self-identify as a particular designation: unionist, nationalist, or other. Under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, 30 members may submit a "Petition of Concern" on a motion to the speaker of the assembly making it subject to a . Motions subject to a cross-community vote, either by standing orders or by a petition of concern, require support from a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists.
The Northern Ireland Executive is jointly led by a First Minister and deputy First Minister who are nominated by the largest parties of each of the two designations. In 2016, these parties were the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin. Because the First Minister and deputy First Minister is a joint office under Northern Irish law, the resignation of one vacates the whole office. If the office cannot be filled after a seven-day period, the entire assembly is dissolved and a new assembly elected.
The RHI scheme in Northern Ireland was managed and set up by the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment[a] (DETI) in 2012 and was overseen by Arlene Foster, the DETI Minister at the time. The intention of the scheme was for businesses and non-domestic properties to begin using renewable heating sources such as wood pellets by offering them generous subsidies.
In the Northern Ireland Programme for Government (PfG), the Executive set out targets for renewable energy. It hoped that 4% of heat would come from renewable resources in 2015 with a further target of 10% in 2020. The RHI scheme offered incentives so that businesses and non-domestic users would change to renewable energy, which includes biomass boilers, solar pumps and heat pumps.
The scheme was approved by Executive ministers to meet the Programme for Government target. The scheme was budgeted at £25 million for 2011-2015. The scheme offered to cover the cost of the fuel and the boilers and to leave a margin of approximately 12%. The scheme effectively paid people to heat properties, so long as they used renewable energy to do so. The lack of cost controls encouraged applicants to profit from using excess energy.
In the period 2014-2015, there was an underspend of £15 million as there was a lack of uptake. From April 2015 however, applications increased "significantly". After officials announced changes to the scheme, 984 applications were received from September 2015 to November 2015, which was before the changes announced were due to take place. The scheme was eventually closed in February 2016 by Jonathan Bell, successor to Foster as Minister of DETI. He said that it was closed "in view of the significant financial risk to the Northern Ireland block grant for the next 20 years".
Concerns of fraud were raised initially in 2013 and again in 2014, when a whistleblower contacted Foster to raise concerns about the scheme. The whistleblower stated that the scheme was "flawed" and the concerns of civil servants "were ignored" after she reported abuse of the scheme, as property owners were taking advantage of the scheme by heating properties that were previously unheated. It is claimed that the team, which comprised ten officials, investigated the whistleblower's claims and "did not believe the informant" and did not report back to Foster.
Another whistleblower wrote a letter in January 2016 to tell Foster, who had by then become First Minister, about an "empty" farm shed that was "being heated for the subsidy". The scheme did not take into account that properties that were not previously heated could now be heated for a profit.
The lack of cost control led to the Northern Ireland Executive committing a figure of £490m, based on the NIAO report 2015/16, to the scheme over 20 years. HM Treasury contacted the Executive in light of the huge bill and said that the Executive would have to find the funds for it. The projected £490m spend would be spread over 20 years, as the participants of the scheme signed contracts with DETI and their payments were to last for 20 years. When news first broke of the botched scheme, it was originally thought that the total cost to the budget would be £400m, but this was later revised up to £490m. Northern Ireland receives a block payment each year from HM Treasury, and the block payment will need to be adjusted as a result of the money committed to the scheme.
Arlene Foster left DETI and became Minister for Finance, leaving Jonathan Bell to succeed her as DETI Minister. After news of the affair broke, Bell gave an exclusive interview to the BBC Radio Ulster programme The Nolan Show, where he said that DUP special advisers and Foster "intervened" to prevent the closure of the scheme. He also claimed that Foster tried to "cleanse the records" by hiding her involvement in delaying the scheme's closure. In the period that he says he tried to close the scheme and the scheme's actual closure, there was a spike in applications which caused more money to be allocated to the scheme. After the interview, Bell was suspended from the DUP.
A total of 1,946 applications had been received by DETI for the scheme. 98% of applicants received by DETI were approved. After civil servants started to discuss closing the scheme, an additional 948 applications were made between September and November 2015. This enabled the applications to be judged before any changes to the scheme took place.
Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) opened an investigation into the scheme because the scheme ran over its budget and because of the spike in applications. An independent audit inspected 300 sites which benefited from the scheme, and the audit revealed that there were issues at half of those, although Poultry and Mushroom producers were found to be operating within the remit of the scheme. The audit also indicated that there were serious fraud issues at 14 of the sites and payments to 2 of those sites were subsequently suspended.
The Northern Ireland Assembly was recalled on 19 December 2016 to discuss the issue at the request of Foster and Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister.