O’Neill’s officials promoted botched RHI energy scheme
Northern Ireland’s agriculture department organised 58 workshops for farmers interested in the Renewable Heat Incentive while Michelle O’Neill was minister for agriculture, documents obtained by The Times show.
Mrs O’Neill, the new leader of Sinn Fein in the North, claimed this week that she was unaware of how costly the scheme was until February of last year and that it was “entirely of the DUP’s making”.
The Times has obtained presentations from the workshops in which several officials from Mrs O’Neill’s department stressed the financial benefits of the incentive.
Figures released by the Northern Ireland economy department show that the majority of the 2,000 business claimants were farmers, all of whom applied to the scheme while Mrs O’Neill was agriculture minister.
Several of the workshops included talks by Tom Forgrave, a poultry industry representative who has six RHI-funded wood pellet boilers installed on his Ballymoney farm, where he raises 110,000 chickens.
Many of the presentations took place at the Department of Agriculture’s College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE), which has six RHI-funded wood boilers at its three campus locations.
The incentive was launched in 2012 and closed for new applications in February 2016, all during Mrs O’Neill’s tenure as agriculture minister.
She had posed for photos and promoted biomass energy with a company that is the largest wood pellet producer in Northern Ireland and which heavily promoted the RHI.
As Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader and as the party’s longest serving minister in the region, Mrs O’Neill is strongly expected to be the party’s nominee for deputy first minister after assembly elections in March.
A 2013 Department of Agriculture presentation on the RHI has been taken down from its website but the department has supplied a copy to The Times. It shows that the department organised a presentation for farmers before the RHI was launched.
One department official advised potential participants that they could begin applying for the RHI on November 1 of that year and that the payments would continue for 20 years.
Another department of agriculture official used a Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) presentation to show farmers the financial benefits of the incentive.
Mrs O’Neill has claimed that Arlene Foster, who as enterprise and trade minister oversaw the rollout of the RHI, was responsible for the scheme, but the documents show that the DETI and the agriculture department both promoted the scheme.
The Department of Agriculture’s presentations included DETI documents and officials were invited to explain the RHI to potential claimants.
On October 29, 2015, the department held a presentation about renewable energy at the CAFRE campus in Greenmont, Co Antrim.
The presentation was less than three weeks before the final cut-off point of November 19, 2015, for the RHI’s most valuable incentives and in the middle of a rush to sign up: 40 per cent of claimants did so in the final six weeks before that date.
The programme included talks by Mr Forgrave as well as sessions by Department of Agriculture officials and two talks by a DETI official on the financial benefits of the RHI.
Mr Forgrave appeared before a Stormont committee this week and said that poultry farmers would not accept any changes to the RHI contracts, as had been proposed by Simon Hamilton, the economy minister.
The Times has made numerous attempts to seek comment from Mrs O’Neill.
Earlier this week she told The Irish News that she was not answerable in any way for the issue but acknowledged that many farmers had availed of the RHI subsidies.
“The scheme, as it was at that time before there were any problems indentified with it, was being advertised — it was a renewable incentive scheme,” she said.
“There’s no link or correlation to me being an agriculture minister.”
Mrs Foster has denied any wrongdoing and has said that she has nothing to hide in relation to the scheme. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Mr Forgrave. Applicants who used the scheme went through an approval process and were acting in accordance with the legal parameters of the initiative.http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/ireland/oneills-officials-promoted-botched-rhi-energy-scheme-qzgtx68sj