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Governance in Northern Ireland: Learning from the 'Cash for Ash' scandal
In almost every way imaginable, the global public health situation currently makes questions of public finances pale in comparison and significance. At a time where normal politics and the paradigm of what everyday life is have shifted so drastically, it feels trivial to be considering matters relating to oversight, scrutiny and the internal machinations of political parties. But it is maybe as a means of distraction from the current context, and perhaps with an optimistic eye to what will come after this storm, that considering something so relatively normal as the long-awaited ‘Report of the Independent Public Inquiry into the Non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Scheme’ (despite its extraordinary nature by any usual standards) becomes bizarrely reassuring, even if only for giving a sense that these dark days will pass.
The much-anticipated findings from the RHI public inquiry were published on Friday 13th March 2020. A day and date that might have been expected to spell bad news, the key findings of the report certainly did not paint a favourable picture of either the institutions or the personnel responsible for the scheme. This report was the culmination of an intense scrutiny, to a depth not seen before, of the machinery behind how governance is ‘done’ in Northern Ireland.
The RHI scheme was initially designed with positive intentions to encourage businesses to move from fossil-fuelled heating to boilers using renewable materials, namely wood pellets, incentivised through repayments in the form of fuel subsidies. It was set up to replicate an approach that had been taken in England with the bulk of the legislation involved being directly copied and pasted across.
However, where the English scheme implemented an upper limit in the amount that recipients could reclaim, this was omitted from the Northern Irish legislation. In effect, this meant that participants were being paid - at a rate of £1.60 for every £1 spent – to use these boilers, meaning businesses were able to earn money from participating in the scheme for the duration of its planned 20-year existence (and hence the ‘Cash-for-Ash’ name attributed to it). In 2013 and 2016, whistleblowers came forward to highlight this problem, claiming that the scheme was being exploited, shining a light on the financial shortfall that would be generated if the scheme continued – this being an expense that would fall on the public purse.
In a televised interview with BBC’s Stephen Nolan in December 2016, former Minister for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), Jonathan Bell, claimed that leading figures and their advisers within the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were knowingly involved in the design, running and continuation of the scheme. He spoke at length about Special Advisers (SpAds) and senior political figures being instrumental in actively working to keep the scheme open without cost controls after it became evident that it would run to a substantial deficit.
It was the flaw in not having a cap on the subsidies in particular that lay at the centre of the RHI scandal and contributed to the unravelling of a complex political web which ultimately saw the resignation of the deputy First Minister in January 2017, the collapse of the political institutions and three years without functioning government in Northern Ireland.
Initially, Northern Ireland’s Public Accounts Committee attempted to undertake an inquiry into RHI, even taking the unprecedented decision to call 4 serving MLAs, including First Minister Arlene Foster, to give evidence before it. But it quickly became apparent that this was an issue that stretched beyond the remit of this body, and that a full public inquiry was the only recourse of action available to get to the bottom of what happened.
The Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry commenced in 2017 and was chaired by Sir Patrick Coghlin, a retired member of the Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland. Over 114 sittings, evidence was presented by a range of witnesses, including (former and current) elected representatives, SpAds, and civil servants. After numerous deferrals, not least due to cross-party talks in late 2019 and the restarting of the institutions, it was over a year after completion that the findings were published.
The report itself is a lengthy read, comprising of 3 volumes, with 44 recommendations made covering recruitment within Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS), training for civil servants, ministers and special advisers, procedural revisions to prevent the same mistakes happening again, and an updating of the 2007 Ministerial Code of Conduct. The content of the report itself was not wholly unsurprising given the extensive coverage of the inquiry, and the 2019 book ‘Burned: The Inside Story of the ‘Cash-for-Ash’ Scandal and Northern Ireland’s Secretive Elite’ by Sam McBride. The report’s publication was followed by an apology from Arlene Foster who vowed to learn from the mistakes made and to take forward the lessons from RHI.
There was nothing to suggest that the content of the report would pose an issue for the Executive ministers or their parties in terms of their working relationships with each other – this is perhaps unsurprising given that there had already been a commitment made in the New Decade New Approach agreement in January 2020 that a sub-committee would be established specifically to respond quickly to any recommendations made in the RHI report. Within a matter of days after publication, however, RHI was off the news agenda and focus (rightly) redirected to covering the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19).
While not new and certainly not exclusive to Northern Ireland, the RHI debacle raised some serious questions with regard to trust between the public and political spheres. The report did not point a finger of blame in any one direction as might have been expected; rather, individuals were left to draw their own conclusions.
In some ways, it might have been easier if it had been possible for one source to be identified as the culprit at fault for the scheme so that closure could be given on what happened. But that the finger seems to be pointed right across the institutions and the internal party political machines – as a direct consequence of the complex dynamics and interactions involved in RHI – means that much wider systemic problems have been unearthed. This in turn means that it will be much harder to ensure similar behaviours do not arise again in the future.
To lift some notable phrases, the report states that it was a ‘project too far’, that the scheme ‘should never have been adopted’ and that DETI ‘should never have embarked’ on it. It indicates that the management of the scheme was to blame for its failings, as opposed to a corrupt mindset from the outset on the part of any individual(s). This is of little comfort, however, when it is realised that this, in other words, means that at least some of those involved were doing jobs, taking on tasks and becoming involved in matters that they weren’t equipped to be able to handle. This is clearly reflected in the recommendations that have been made in the report.
The current health crisis is by no means comparable with RHI, with the exception of one key element: trust. The response to the coronavirus pandemic will, on personal and professional levels, bear consequences for all of Northern Ireland’s representatives. On the one hand, it may serve to foster a stronger working relationship across MLAs and parties as divisions are subsumed by common interest. Equally, the enormity of the situation bears the potential of leaving it vulnerable to succumbing to the shortfalls seen in the case of RHI, as everyone moves to adapt quickly to an ever-changing situation.
In essence, the concept of good governance takes on a different meaning in the present circumstance where ministerial decisions will (and should be) dictated by this most pressing concern, giving rise to different outcomes than might otherwise have been the case. Come what may, the local management of the pandemic will have an indelible impact on how the public views politics, politicians and governance more generally in Northern Ireland going forward, not least in light of the different approaches that have been adopted on either side of the border in this regard.
This is where the RHI recommendations can be used positively; rather than taking them as a duty-bound tick-box exercise, it is the moral and personal lessons from the experience that are just as essential to take forward. Being able to tick off each recommendation of change will be important steps in their own right, but it is change to mindsets that would be the most valuable outcome, and there is an opportunity here where real, meaningful change can emerge in how governance happens in a practical sense Northern Ireland once business as usual resumes.
Quite rightly, focus in all quarters has been redirected from RHI since the publication of the report, and so it will remain for the foreseeable. Only time will tell what will happen, but however things pan out over the months ahead, one thing is clear – the lessons of RHI must not be forgotten.
Dr. Clare Rice is a Research Assistant at Newcastle University, working on the ESRC-funded project ‘Performing Identities: Post-Brexit Northern Ireland and the reshaping of 21st Century Governance’. She tweets at @Clare_Rice_ Image credit: CC by DUP Photos/Flickr.