Fiddling while the North burns – the great ‘cash for ash’ robbery

In November 2012, Arlene Foster, then Minister for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), initiated the 'Renewable Heat Incentive' (RHI) scheme.

Socialist Worker

Fiddling while the North burns – the great ‘cash for ash’ robbery

Gavin Campbell

The Department for the Economy estimates RHI will cost the public purse a staggering £490 million while the Northern Ireland Audit Office has issued a statement saying it could eventually cost over £1 billion. The scale of the debacle has triggered fresh elections in the North and plunged Northern politics into crisis. 

The RHI scheme was supposedly established to encourage businesses to move from using fossil fuels to biomass-burning heating systems.

However, in the North the scheme, through a combination of corruption, incompetence and criminality, was thrown wide open to abuse by ‘those in the know’. For every £1.00 of wood pellets burned, a participating RHI business would make £1.60 in return! Stunningly, contracts were signed for 20 years – empty sheds, barns and factories were being heated 24/7 in order to profit!


Though we don’t yet know the details of every business participating, it has transpired through the slow drip feed of announcements that many of ‘those in the know’ were close associates, family members of DUP MLAs and party members.

As early as 2013 a whistleblower contacted Arlene Foster, to express concern regarding the potential abuse of the scheme. Foster failed to act on this information even though the whistleblower followed up her concerns in 2014.

In 2015 RHI experienced a sudden massive spike in applications, as firms got inside information from the office of DETI regarding their intention to rein in ‘cash for ash’. It was only in Februrary 2016 that the Minister, Jonathan Bell, announced his intention to close the scheme to new applicants.

In July 2016, following an investigation, the Northern Ireland Audit office reported “serious systemic failings” would cost hundreds of millions of pounds. The scandal grabbed public attention when BBC Spotlight investigated it, revealing the ignored whistleblower email sent in 2013.

In December 2016, with pressure mounting on Arlene Foster she responded, with the full support of her Executive partners Sinn Fein, by saying she would write to each applicant seeking permission to publish their names. This was too little, too late.

Revelation followed revelation. Foster’s DUP colleague, Jonathan Bell, publicly claimed he was blocked from shutting down the scheme by others in the DUP linked with the First Minister’s office.

Pressure increased for Foster to step down and for the Executive to initiate an independent public inquiry. However, Foster refused to budge and Sinn Fein refused to back a ‘no confidence’ motion or the call for a public inquiry brought forward by opposition parties. 

Public anger

Public anger intensified in response to Foster’s arrogant dismissal of criticism and the obvious scale of corruption and incompetence. The debacle had now engulfed the entire Executive, its ruling parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, and undermined the whole credibility of Stormont.  

Widespread discontent led Sinn Fein supporters to demand the party leadership end its complicity in Foster’s and the DUP’s impunity. Public outrage eventually forced Martin McGuinness to call time and step down from his position as Deputy First Minister thus precipitating the election.

Stormont is known for weathering scandals and continuing with ‘business as usual’ whether it’s Red Sky, NAMA, Research Services Ireland or paramilitaries receiving funding through the Social Investment Fund. However, the DUP/SF has implemented severe cuts to public services in recent years on the basis ‘times are tough’ and funding doesn’t exist. For many, the RHI debacle proves this to be nonsense with the DUP/SF running Stormont as a racket. 

People Before Profit MLA’s Eamonn McCann and Gerry Carroll were relentless in demanding full political accountability and making sure this scandal didn’t disappear, as others have, in committee rooms out of public sight. This pressure has forced Sinn Fein into yet another U-turn with their agreement to call for a public inquiry.

2 March gives people the right to voice their opinion about RHI, austerity, establishment parties and Stormont as an institution. It’s time for an alternative putting people before profit. 

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