Northern Ireland

RHI firms: 'Minister using us as political football'

Simon Hamilton Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Simon Hamilton proposed releasing RHI scheme names

Economy Minister Simon Hamilton has been accused of using firms receiving RHI subsidy as a "political football".

Businesses getting the subsidy are in court opposing Simon Hamilton's intention to publish their names.

Their lawyer said the proposal to release the names was far from being about the public interest.

Rather, he said, it was an attempt to "divert attention" from "ministerial & departmental responsibility" for the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

Former first minister Arlene Foster set up the scheme in 2012 when she was enterprise minister; it was an attempt by the Northern Ireland Executive to increase the creation of heat from renewable sources.

But flaws in setting the scheme's subsidy rate left it open to abuse as claimants could earn more cash the more fuel they burned, with the overspend estimated to cost taxpayers some £490m.

Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister last month when Mrs Foster refused to step aside during an inquiry into the debacle.

Sinn Féin's refusal to nominate a replacement left Secretary of State James Brokenshire with no option but to call fresh Assembly elections on 2 March.

'DUP cronies'

The barrister said it was a matter of notoriety that there was a "significant suggestion that DUP cronies have benefited from the scheme".

He referred to an assembly debate last month in which Mr Hamilton alluded to the fact that MLAs from other parties had links to people in the scheme.

Image caption Figures based on evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee in October 2016

"Obviously the public interest he (Mr Hamilton) seems to suggest is 'there's been a lot of criticism of the DUP and I want to see everyone tarred with the same brush'.

"It's clear that these people are being treated as a political football," the lawyer said.

He said Mr Hamilton's insistence on publication of the names flew in the face of advice from his civil servants.

The court heard that 834 firms had replied to a letter from the department seeking permission to publish their details, and that 94% of them objected.

Among the reasons they cited were:

  • Concerns about vandalism and staff safety
  • A possible impact on business
  • A potential for job losses
  • The belief that they were being made scapegoats

The lawyer said said the minister's intention to release the names on the day the assembly dissolved was further evidence that publication was not about transparency.

Five hundred firms are members of the Renewable Heat Association that is taking the action.

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