Mike Nesbitt claims official’s remarks about Arlene Foster are “smoking gun”

Posted By: December 19, 2016

Posted on:

Mike Nesbitt says the comments by a former Deti official represent a “smoking gun” implicating Arlene Foster in the RHI scandal. Picture by Colm Lenaghan, Pacemaker Press
John Manley. Irish News (Belfast). Wednesday, December 14, 2016

ULSTER Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt claims to have unearthed the “smoking gun” that shows Arlene Foster was directly responsible for the costly Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) debacle.

The claim came as the first minister said she would be happy to appear before Stormont’s spending watchdog if invited.

Last month, The Irish News revealed that an unwritten convention means ordinarily that Mrs. Foster would not face a grilling about her oversight of the £1.2bn RHI scheme.

Failure to impose a cap on the green energy initiative is forecast to cost the executive around £400m over the next 20 years.

The DUP leader was minister at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) for much of the time the scheme operated.

She has refused to accept responsibility for its failings, telling this newspaper that ministers do not get to see “every single jot and tittle” that goes on in Stormont departments.

The assembly’s Public Accounts Committee will meet tomorrow to decide whether to call Mrs. Foster to give evidence.

Mr. Nesbitt claimed on Tuesday he had proof that the first minister was responsible for not imposing a cap on the green energy subsidy, similar to one that was in place for a corresponding scheme in Britain.

The Strangford MLA said that at a meeting in February of this year of Stormont’s enterprise, trade and investment committee, an official was questioned about why Northern Ireland did not adopt the so-called “digression” procedures which applied in Britain, which could have capped the amount of public funds available for the regional RHI scheme.

Mr. Nesbitt said the record showed that the official said digression was discussed in the context of the Deti’s intention to introduce a domestic RHI scheme.

The official said: “So the minister decided that the priority should be on the introduction of the domestic RHI scheme.”

The UUP leader said it was proof that Mrs. Foster’s “fingerprints are on the decision-making process” that led to Stormont’s massive spending over-commitment.

“It is time Mrs. Foster stopped blaming others and embraced the age-old principle of ministerial responsibility,” he said.

“She was not only aware of what was happening, she was making it happen, through a series of policy choices that resulted in the fatally-flawed RHI.”

He said the divergence in policy was “totally unnecessary” as the DUP leader had the option of adopting wholesale the successful model used in Britain,

“Degression would have meant that the greater the number of applications for RHI, the lower the tariffs would have fallen, ensuring the total spend would remain constant, no matter how many applied,” he said.

“In fact, the consultation document from July 2013 makes explicit reference to the department’s intention to introduce degression at some point during the lifetime of RHI – who decided otherwise? Mrs. Foster and at a cost of £400 million, literally up in smoke.”

Responding, DUP MLA Christopher Stalford accused Mr. Nesbitt of being “more interested in chasing headlines than the truth.”

“The prioritization of the domestic RHI scheme was based on the information and advice available to Arlene Foster at that time. Despite having information from the whistle-blower, officials had not escalated the concerns about the non-domestic scheme,” he said.