In 2011 the United Kingdom introduced a government-backed scheme known as the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a payment system encouraging the use of renewable energy sources for the heating of domestic and non-domestic buildings. By November of 2012 the programme had been extended to the UK-administered north-east of Ireland where the local Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), part of the power-sharing executive at Stormont, just outside of Belfast, was tasked with its introduction and management.
The minister in charge of the DETI during this period was Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a popular hardliner from the pro-union community whose political instincts are better suited to the Balkans than to western Europe. Within twenty-four months of the green initiative’s launch a worried official contacted Foster on two separate occasions to note concerns about the RHI’s operation. While Foster latterly claims to have passed on the information to her staff it seems that there was no proper assessment of the allegations or the evidence presented in them.
In February of 2016 more whistleblowers came forward, alarmed by rumours of business properties availing of the scheme which had not been heated – or required heating – before its introduction. These included otherwise empty sheds and factories where expensive systems had now been installed, fuelled by the burning of sustainable wood pellets (chips). In many cases the claimed costs of heating these locations far exceeded the actual costs, the difference being pocketed by unscrupulous owners.
The allegations of wrongdoing were soon coupled with messages to the executive in the Six Counties from the Treasury in Britain warning that the former would have to meet the spiralling local costs of the initiative from its own budget. Meanwhile an October meeting of the Public Accounts Committee in the cross-community assembly at Stormont was told that half of the sites investigated by a team of independent auditors were found to have issues with their RHI grants, several clearly fraudulent in nature.
In light of the growing financial burden, and concerns over the improper use of public monies, Arlene Foster’s successor at the DETI, fellow DUP member Jonathan Bell, tried to close down the scheme in early 2016. However his intentions were delayed by senior advisors close to Foster, who was now serving as the senior first minister in the regional administration in the north-east of the country, alongside Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness as the coeval deputy first minister. In fact during the autumn of 2015 applications for the RHI programme had skyrocketed as speculation about its possible future began to circulate among officials.
Eventually when the “cash-for-ash/ash-for-cash” scandal broke in mid-December of 2016, largely due to a frustrated Jonathan Bell speaking to the press, Arlene Foster and a number of identified DUP officials vociferously denied any wrongdoing. Indeed Foster claimed that Bell had tried to physically intimidate her during a verbal confrontation on the matter, providing cover for the DUP to suspend him from the party, while his former colleagues rushed to attack his record and character.
Further claims about the controversy, some linking named DUP politicians, their extended families or associates to RHI abuses, quickly forced the so-called “opposition” or non-executive parties in the Stormont Assembly, the SDLP, UUP, Alliance, PBP, TUV, and Green Party, to formally call for the exclusion of Arlene Foster as the first minister. Under the complex procedural rules in the regional legislature, born out of the Irish-British peace process of the 1990s and early 2000s, the motion required a bi-communal vote. That is, it needed a majority of nationalist and unionist members or MLAs to support it. Unfortunately on December 19th less than a third of pro-union members voted to exclude Foster, the DUP’s position as the dominant unionist party in the assembly giving it an effective veto over pan-community decisions.
Sinn Féin, the DUP’s nationalist partner in regional government, abstained from the vote, gaining the derision of its opponents and the dismay of its supporters. Some sympathetic or optimistic observers claimed that the party was playing a strategic game of politics, one which would give it the upper hand over its unionist allies. However there has been scant evidence of that in the last two weeks. Instead Arlene Foster and company have jumped back into the pro-union trenches, adopting dog whistle tactics to whip up atavistic unionist sentiment against nationalism and Irishness in the north-east of the island, and to hell with the consequences.
From the Irish Times:
“A decision by the head of the North’s Department for Communities (DfC) to withdraw funding for an Irish language bursary scheme designated for disadvantaged young people from both sides of the community has been criticised by political and language groups.
The Líofa scheme, which sent at least 100 people each year to attend summer Irish language classes in Donegal, was aimed at those who might not otherwise have had the chance to go to a Gaeltacht, and was open to people of all traditions and backgrounds.
The Department for Communities announced the £50,000 cut in an email circulated from the Líofa office to gaeltacht colleges on December 23rd.
Dr Niall Comer, the president of Comhaltas Uladh, described the move as a “blatant act of discrimination.”
Former Sinn Féin culture minister Carál Ní Chuilín who introduced the scheme in 2011 described it as a “disgraceful ending” and claimed it had “nothing to do with funds, just hatred of Irish”.
SDLP Mid-Ulster MLA and Irish language spokesperson Patsy McGlone said he would “press” DUP MLA and head of the Department for Communities Paul Givan to reverse what he described as an “unfair and retrograde step.”
“Without wanting to sound cynical, one has to wonder if Minister Givan hasn’t taken this decision, at this particular time, to reintroduce tribal politics to a public currently focused on the DUP’s many financial scandals,” Mr McGlone said.
BBC Radio Ulster presenter Lynette Fay criticised the move in a tweet saying: “But for a Gaeltacht scholarship, I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am today. Awful.”
In 2014 the Council of Europe said growth and promotion of the Irish language was being blocked by hostile attitudes in Stormont and a lack of support for its use in the courts and in education despite a growth in demand for primary education in Irish.
In a review of minority languages the body said the [UK] government had not been able to justify banning the use of Irish in the courts or allowing people to take citizenship tests through the language.”
While Sinn Féin claims to be working on a procedural plan to address the Foster scandal in January of 2017, few expect the issue to be resolved. So far the SF handlers in Stormont have proved themselves to be fairly ineffectual when it comes to taming the wild dogs of DUP unionism.
As always the latter party will get away with rhetorical murder while the national governments in Dublin and London politely look the other way, simply grateful that it is not actual murder anymore.
Having been burned by the “united by 2016” promise I’m somewhat wary of the over-the-horizon optimism. The “process” is in stasis. Hopefully Brexit et al will get it moving again. And quickly. SF had Foster there at the last election. It failed to exploit her presence while she went full Orange to get the votes out. The party just looks weak.