Lack of RHI rules poses a problem for Stormont

Posted By: December 31, 2016

One of the main uses for RHI appears to be heating barns full of chickens – in fact; this may well turn out to be the single costliest application of the scheme

Newton Emerson. Irish News, Belfast. Saturday, December 31, 2016

HOW do you accuse people of breaking the rules when you ensured there were no rules?

That is the conundrum facing Stormont as it tries to recoup its £490 million over-commitment on the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

Ministerial promises to recover £200 million – half the original estimated overspend – seem like a baselessly round number.

Scheme administrators Ofgem have now discovered a regulation that says claimants “must not generate heat for the predominant purpose of increasing their periodic support payments.”

That should apply to heating an empty barn. On the other hand, anyone who cares to defend their subsidy – let alone to defend themselves from a fraud charge – could point to the documentation where officials boast that nobody has an incentive to waste heat because the scheme is so cleverly designed.

As usual, it may all come down to who has the scariest-looking lawyers.


One of the main uses for RHI appears to be heating barns full of chickens – in fact; this may well turn out to be the single costliest application of the scheme. The dry heat produced by wood-fired systems encourages animal growth and health, so it makes sense for farmers to run the boilers full blast around the clock. Installation was encouraged by meat processors and the banks, with Stormont backing loans and fast-tracking planning applications to get heating systems online. There is no question that all of this is completely above board – so how will one penny of it ever be recovered?


Dublin has once again let it be known that in upcoming negotiations with Brussels over Brexit, one of its key demands will be readmitting Northern Ireland to the EU in the event of a united Ireland. The reunification of Germany is cited as the relevant example. Taoiseach Enda Kenny mused on the same theme at an event in September, and now the Irish Times has been briefed that this position is official. However, it is being presented back to front, because Dublin’s real priority is to ensure a vote for unity under the Good Friday Agreement does not require the Republic to leave the EU. Much lip service is paid to the idea that a united Ireland must be a new country – but that would require a new European membership application, unlike bolting the north onto the south as an EU continuing state. This notion of a new Ireland could be Brexit’s ultimate ideological casualty.


Having launched us out of Europe without a thought for effect on Northern Ireland, the Conservative Party has now timetabled an equally ignorant departure from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The Daily Telegraph reports that Theresa May will fight the 2020 general election on this issue, making it the ‘next Brexit.’ Her vision is to keep all the ECHR rights in UK law but leaves the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg, making London’s Supreme Court the final arbiter. Technically, this would not breach the Good Friday Agreement, which only requires the ECHR to be “in Northern Ireland law,” with “direct access to the courts.” But in reality, this would need to be carefully explained to avoid misrepresentation by the rights sector. As nobody in Westminster seems to appreciate this, yet more needless damage to our politics seems inevitable.


Northern Ireland is about to intrude into Westminster’s thoughts regarding dealing with the past, as the UK media latches on to Troubles-related prosecutions of former British soldiers. Three months ago, in her first conference speech as Tory leader, Theresa May made a high-profile attack on “activist, left-wing human rights lawyers” bringing claims against veterans of the Iraq war. The day before, she had promised to exempt British troops from human rights law during armed conflicts. In September, she criticized the number of claims lodged with the Iraq Historical Allegations Team. While none of this is exactly equivalent to our stalled legacy process, it will look similar enough from Britain, where the prime minister has nailed her colors firmly to the mast. …