RHI is back in the headlines. First Minister Arlene Foster has withdrawn support for a bill which would criminalise some of the inappropriate behaviour engaged in by politicians and government officials involved in the ‘cash for ash’ scandal, such as leaking confidential information to family members and conducting government business through personal email accounts. Sinn Féin had already made clear they would not support the bill.

Below is a review of Sam McBride’s Burned: The Inside Story of the ‘Cash-for-Ash’ Scandal and Northern Ireland’s Secretive New Elite.

by Daniel Waldron

In Burned, News Letter journalist Sam McBride delves in great detail into the story of the ‘cash for ash’ scandal which triggered the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017, drawing from the evidence given to the Coghlin Inquiry, his own research and envelopes full of leaked emails which routinely landed on his desk. The story which unfolds is illuminating on a number of levels, but is perhaps most revealing with regard to the close relationship between the Stormont politicians – particularly the DUP – and big business.

The Northern Ireland non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme was launched in 2012 by the Department for Enterprise, Trade & Investment (DETI) – then headed by current DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster – with the supposed aim of meeting EU targets for use of sustainable heat sources. The scheme was almost an exact copy of its counterpart in Britain. However, it had one crucial element stripped out – cost controls.

Those with biomass boilers under the scheme were given a subsidy based upon its usage. With the subsidy set higher than the cost of the fuel and with no limit on usage, this created a perverse incentive to generate heat unnecessarily in order to make a profit, with the tariffs supposedly locked in for 20 years. Rather than encouraging efficiency and promoting environmentally friendly practise, it did the opposite. Unsurprisingly, reports of empty barns being heated round the clock to maximise income soon arose.

Stormont’s culture of secrecy

Why were the cost controls removed? This question is difficult to answer definitively because of the system of oral government instituted by the DUP and Sinn Féin. Minutes of meetings were regularly not taken by civil servants, while much governmental communication was kept off the official record. This allowed the parties to distance themselves from unpopular decisions. However, civil servants testified to the Inquiry that they believed they were working under Ministerial direction to make the scheme more generous than in Britain.

Senior civil servants, the DUP ministers who oversaw the scheme and their special advisors (spads) – highly paid, temporary civil servants appointed by their party – would all claim that they were unaware of this flaw, despite repeated warnings from multiple sources. Indeed, DETI staff were routinely attending industry events where RHI was openly being advertised by boiler installers as a ‘burn to earn’ scheme.

While Foster would deny it, communications from her spad, Andrew Crawford, and others would suggest the relaxed attitude to the cost of the scheme was at least partly due to politicians and officials labouring under the false belief that the bill would be entirely covered by the Treasury. Only when it dawned on them, years after the scheme’s launch, that the overspend – at one point, estimated to be as much as £700 million – would come out of Northern Ireland’s budget, and potentially have a political cost to them, did panic ensue.

This feckless attitude to UK taxpayers’ money from politicians who profess to put the Union above all is clearly a bugbear for McBride. However, the money drawn down through the scheme was never going to benefit the people of Northern Ireland as a whole. Indeed, most of it made its way, indirectly at least, into the coffers of big business, and one multinational in particular – major poultry producer Moy Park.

Moy Park’s special position

The DUP’s Andrew Crawford emerges as a central character in the story. While he was a key figure in the department overseeing the scheme, he passed on confidential documents to family members who subsequently became claimants. More important, however, is his close connection with Moy Park. When price controls were finally being considered, he worked to delay and dilute them, and also tipped the company off so they could rush their suppliers in on the ‘burn to earn’ tariff. In the end, almost half of all claimants on the scheme would be connected to Moy Park. He would also seek to obscure the particular role of the poultry industry, dominated by Moy Park, in the overspend.

Suggestions of corrupt connections between the DUP and wealthy interests are nothing new – Red Sky, NAMA, Paisley Jnr’s holidays, the list goes on. What becomes clear, however, is that Crawford’s role as a de facto agent of Moy Park was reflective of the attitude of the Stormont Executive as a whole, which went to extraordinary lengths to assist the company’s expansion. A special team of civil servants was dedicated to the task. The company was given huge grants and subsidies, and assisted in getting around environmental, planning and state aid regulations.

While it is not possible to say definitively because of the informal and secretive nature of Stormont’s operations, McBride raises the question of whether the flawed nature of RHI was a conscious decision to assist Moy Park. It was certainly very convenient for the company. The new heating systems for its suppliers didn’t cost Moy Park a penny, but cut levels of ammonia produced, previously a barrier to its growth. It also allowed Moy Park to cut heat-related payments to its suppliers, forcing many farmers onto the scheme, as these were now being covered through public funds. This contributed to a spike in the firm’s profits.

McBride sees this as undermining the healthy working of a capitalist free market. In reality, this is the modus operandi of modern capitalism. The state acts always to defend the profits of big business. This was graphically demonstrated both in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and now, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, with governments rushing to bail out banks and major corporations, and the cost being put on the shoulders of ordinary people. It was also seen in the united campaign by the main Stormont parties to secure the power to cut corporation tax.

The whole system at fault

While the DUP is undoubtedly the party most heavily implicated in the RHI scandal, the other Stormont parties do not come off well either. There was a failure of the Assembly to adequately scrutinise what was going on, with a culture of simply nodding through legislation not related to divisive, Orange vs Green issues, reflecting the reality that the main parties are largely on the same neo-liberal page when it comes to economic and social policy.

When the scale of the crisis became clear and moves were made to shut the scheme entirely, Sinn Féin ministers intervened to keep it open for an additional two weeks, and acted to screen their DUP Executive partners from scrutiny. It was only when the scandal emerged in the public domain almost a year later that they called for Foster to temporarily step down as First Minister. But they initially resisted calls for a public inquiry and aimed to keep the Stormont show on the road.

Outrage diverted towards sectarianism

However, the swell of public outrage became irresistible. McBride refers to the BBC Spotlight investigation into the scheme which was aired in December 2016, with reporter Conor Spackman symbolically throwing bundles of notes into a boiler. Watching this, McBride says he was angered as he thought about his mother-in-law, who just weeks earlier had been forced by lengthy NHS waiting lists to pay to see a private neurological consultant and be diagnosed with motor neurone disease. The obvious connection between the impact of austerity and Stormont allowing money to literally go up in smoke enraged people from all backgrounds.

Already under pressure from below, a provocative cut to an Irish language grant by the DUP’s Paul Givan was the final straw. Sinn Féin withdrew from the Executive and collapsed the institutions. What followed was a highly sectarianised election, in which both parties shifted the debate onto divisive issues to distract from their role in RHI.

A rotten system

Burned touches upon many other themes – the nepotism and backbiting within the DUP; incompetent or disinterested ministers; civil servants struggling to grapple with issues they knew little about in under-resourced departments, while a bloated apparatus acted to protect the political interests of the two main parties; the inefficient outsourcing of expertise; the revolving door between industries and the public bodies meant to regulate them; the relationship between Stormont and the media. 

Fundamentally, however, Burned serves as a damning indictment of the system of government which exists at Stormont, where Unionist and nationalist politicians collaborate, often secretively, in implementing neo-liberal policies and serving the interests of big business, while cynically whipping up sectarian tensions when it suits their ends. It serves as an example of how capitalism’s incessant drive for profit undermines and perverts even limited attempts to tackle climate change. Its revelations underline the need to build an anti-sectarian, socialist voice for the working class, in order to challenge this rotten status quo and the system of capitalism itself.