A Winter’s Tale at Stormont
The world watches as Shakespearean tragedy threatens the power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland
The “Ash for Cash” debacle currently playing out in Northern Ireland has all the hallmarks of a Shakespearian play; from drama to tragedy, comedy and of course, sex. The stage is Northern Ireland and the taxpayer is the ultimate victim. As in Hamlet, “it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man”. A fire is burning in Stormont, signalling the largest political scandal to hit its walls for many years. The truth of a blunder that will burn the taxpayer for decades to come has left the nation in utter shock. Julius Caesar would certainly not consider the mess a “dish fit for the gods”.
“Julius Caesar would certainly not consider the mess a “dish fit for the Gods”.”
The tragedy began a mere four years ago in 2012, when the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme (RHI) was set up and ran by the Department of Trade, Enterprise and Investment, for which Arlene Foster was head of ship. Its purpose was to provide non-domestic farms and businesses with an incentive to switch from burning fossil fuels to wood pellets. The issue with the scheme is simple. The idea for the initiative was a tacit ‘copy and paste’ job from a similar scheme in Britain. However, the subsidy pays the business more than the pellets themselves cost. For every £1 spent on biomass, one would receive £1.60 in return. Unlike its counterpart, there was an omission of a cap on how much a business could profit from such a scheme. A report published in June 2016 by the Northern Ireland Audit Office found that the programme was “copied without thought”.
Politicians are masters of the ‘blame game’ and criticism is firmly placed on the shoulders of First Minister Arlene Foster. Mrs. Foster was Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister at the time. The Minister has been accused of being “asleep at the wheel” during her tenure. Despite vehemently denying that she was warned of the impending disaster the scheme would become, emails dated September 2013 showed a whistle-blower voicing concerns about the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme. The email outlined that the subsidies “pays them to use as much as they can. In fact, the incentive to use more is leading to misuse in some cases”. The earliest warnings dated back to 2011 where more than a dozen companies and businesses had alerted the Department.
“As in Macbeth, “what’s done is done” appears to have been the strategy.”
The warnings were simply not taken seriously enough. In 2013, Mrs. Foster emailed banks asking them to support the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme. Mrs. Foster sought banks to “look favourably” upon businesses who desired support to invest in renewable technologies. Further to this, the Minister outlined that the scheme offered by the government was “reliable” and “offers a good return in investment”. In 2014, the scheme was expanded to domestic applications. As in Macbeth, “what’s done is done” appears to have been the strategy.
However, the repercussions would soon surface. “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble” – a political storm was brewing. Though Stormont did not see this obvious flaw, others did and sought to profit from their profound mistake. Overall, 1,946 applicants were approved with a 98% approval rate. The smouldering fire was set ablaze when in 2015, it was announced that the scheme would be amended. A further 984 applicants were accepted between September and November of that year during a brief window prior to changes being made. Any approved applicants are entitled to grants for up to 20 years.
“One farm aimed to make over a million pounds in 20 years from the scheme by burning pellets in an empty shed 24 hours a day.”
In May 2014, the Department were yet again contacted by a whistle-blower. In a continuing theme, the whistle-blower would later say that her concerns were “swept under the carpet”. In December of the same year, Arlene Foster implored the continued expansion of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme and said that it “is vital that the renewable heat sector in Northern Ireland continues to develop and expand”.
In April 2015, the Department of Enterprise, Investment and Trade applied for re-approval of the scheme from the Department of Finance. Re-approval was not granted due to an “administrative oversight” and changes of staff. It was announced that measurements were to be taken to tighten the scheme rules. Following the announcement, the number of accepted applicants between September and November 2015 was nearly the same as the total number who had applied in the 34-month existence of the scheme resulting in a cost to the taxpayer of £24m a year for the next 20 years. Shakespeare would have certainly said, “you pay a great deal too dear for what’s given freely”. A Winter’s Tale indeed.
By December 2015 it became apparent that the scheme was inherently flawed and botched to the core. The misuse and financial abuse of the scheme would become headline news. In January 2016, a whistle-blower contacted the Department of Enterprise, Investment and Trade to inform them that one farm aimed to make over a million pounds in 20 years from the scheme by burning pellets in an empty shed 24 hours a day.
In May 2015, Jonathan Bell took over as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment from Arlene Foster who became First Minister of Northern Ireland and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader in January 2016. It would be fair to say that the relationship between these two was no Romeo and Juliet. In February 2016, Mr. Bell announced the end of the botched scheme due to overspending and that money would have to be sourced from the Northern Ireland budget to meet scheme commitments over the next 5 years. Even at this stage, the Department did not know the extent of the damage the scheme would make on Northern Ireland’s budget.
Following the closure of the Renewable Heat Investment (RHI) scheme, an investigation began into the controversy that was beginning to engulf Stormont. In July 2016, the report carried out by the Northern Ireland Audit found that the scheme had “serious systematic weakness from the start”. Economic Minister Simon Hamilton described the cost to the taxpayer as “incredible” when it emerged that a business in Britain would make £192,000 over a 20 year period when using a boiler throughout the year. In comparison, the same business would earn £860,000 in Northern Ireland from governmental subsidies.
As it became more apparent that the scheme had transfigured into a stormy Stormont scandal, Mrs. Foster came increasingly under fire. With over £1bn to be paid over the next 20 years due to the scheme, the taxpayer is the one truly burnt. £600m is to be paid out of the treasury with £400m to be paid by the tax-paying citizens of Northern Ireland.
“We have seen drama and comedy, tragedy and unrest.”
Despite continued calls for her resignation, Mrs. Foster remains resilient and unwilling to step aside as First Minister. She even claimed that the overspend caused by the Heat Incentive scheme could be halved. However following release of emails sent by Foster to banks, this claim was extinguished. She described the subsidies as “long-term” and “reliable”. Once the contracts have been executed, it will be difficult to rescind to say the least.
Earliest criticism of the scheme saw Mrs. Foster note that she could not have known “every jot and tittle” during her post. Ironically, her online tribute begins with “detail is important”. The scheme has become a catastrophe and Mrs. Foster has blamed many; from her advisers and civil servants to other political parties. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
By December 2016, a public ‘tit for tat’ game began between Mrs. Foster and Mr. Bell for blame due to the creation of the biggest financial scandal in Stormont history. In a ‘he said she said’ battle, Mr. Bell claimed that Mrs. Foster was “highly agitated and angry” when Foster demanded the scheme to be open an extra fortnight in February 2016. Bell was hence suspended from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) following his televised comments. In response to Mr. Bell’s comments, Mrs. Foster retaliated by calling the suspended Minister “aggressive” and “used his physical bulk to stand over me […] I’ve many female colleagues who have felt bullied by Jonathan over the years”. Mr. Bell is set to sue Mrs. Foster over those statements.
Though the Democratic Unionists Party are in coalition with Sinn Féin, since the scandal began Mrs. Foster has acted as a lone ranger. Former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness sought for Mrs. Foster to step aside for a couple of weeks during the results of an enquiry into the botched scheme to which she replied that she will not “take orders” from Sinn Féin. She then scheduled an official statement without Sinn Féin in Stormont on December 19th.
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.” Her draining political authority as First Minister is becoming increasingly evident. On December 19th when Mrs. Foster addressed Stormont on how to tackle the impending tax payer cost caused by the scheme, all but her own party, the Democratic Unionists, walked out of the chamber. The political scene is most unlike a romantic sonnet . Sinn Féin is remaining adamant that Mrs. Foster step aside before a judicial enquiry begins. Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams warned of the collapse of the assembly if Arlene Foster refuses to do so: “If the First Minister does not take the actions that society desires and deserves and which a sustainable process of change requires, then Sinn Féin will bring this ongoing and totally unacceptable state of affairs to an end.”
The “Ash for Cash” scandal is set to continue with more political drama yet to unfold. With the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, citing the handling of the scandal as the main reason for his resignation, an election looks to be on the cards. The rumblings of discontent can be felt all the way to Stratford-upon-Avon. We have seen drama and comedy, tragedy and unrest. As for sex … the taxpayer is going to be screwed for the next twenty years. As in King Henry, “The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on”.
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