Burned: The Inside Story of the ‘Cash-for-Ash’ Scandal

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Earlier this month Sir Patrick Coghlan’s enquiry into Northern Ireland’s Renewal Heating Initiative (RHI) scandal published its 650 page report.

It took 270,000 words to effectively whitewash the role of Stormont Executive and the DUP’s Arlene Foster in particular. It concluded that ‘there was no evidence of corruption’ whilst acknowledging ‘incompetence’ and ‘wholly inappropriate behaviour’ from ministers and their advisors.

Those responsible for the flagrant waste of taxpayer’s money (a projected overspend of around £600milllion) were given little more than a slap on the wrist.

If you want to discover the whole story Sam MacBride’s book is the place to go. It is a detailed and forensic analysis of every aspect of the scandal. It names names.

It exposes corruption and bureaucratic bungling. It exposes in meticulous detail collusion between ministers and their Special Advisors (SPADS). It highlights the secretive and undemocratic culture at the heart of the DUP.

It exposes the links between government and big business, particularly in agriculture. It lays bare the dysfunctional nature of government at Stormont – a description that even Sir Patrick’s report had to acknowledge.

It is a work in the best traditions of investigative journalism and unsurprisingly led to threats against the author from leading members of the DUP including Arlene Foster herself.

RHI was ostensibly an attempt to shift non-domestic heating from oil and gas to the ‘greener’ fuel of wood pellets. In order to make the shift incentives were offered to those who took up the scheme.

Unbelievably the subsidies were greater than the cost, so for every £1 that users spent they would get £1.60 back. This led to the obscenity of heaters being kept on for 24 hours non-stop in barns with open windows-because the more you burned the more you money you made. The scheme became known as the Cash for Ash scam.

Unlike a similar scheme in the rest of the UK there were no cost controls included in the legislation.In fact the draft legislation was a cut and paste job of the UK model with the cost controls deliberately excluded.

It was introduced to the Stormont Assembly by Arlene Foster without her having read it. Even Sir Patrick had to conclude the ‘the Minister should have read the regulations before bringing them to the Assembly’.

To compound the scandal, when it was discovered that the costs were spiralling out of control, DUP advisors did all they could to delay controls being put into place. Often because their own families and their cronies in business wanted to carry on enriching themselves.

The Executive- a coalition of the DUP and Sinn Fein-either actively colluded in the scam or allowed it to happen in order to keep the power sharing government in place.

After widespread public protests initiated by People Before Profit activists, Sinn Fein eventually pulled the plug on the Executive and the Assembly was in abeyance for three years from 2017 and has only just been re-convened.

Some reviewers have complained that MacBride’s book is too long and has too mush detail about the intricacies of government. But this misses the point.

The complexities of decision making and the interaction between officials, often without any minutes or records been kept, created a labyrinth of corruption.

MacBride’s forensic and exhaustive account of this process makes clear that this is endemic in the bureaucracy of Stormont and typifies the way in which the power-sharing executive conducts its business. Secretly and without accountability.

The people of the North of Ireland are now left with a £40million bill while vital public services are struggling to cope with the needs of one of the poorest regions of the British Isles.

McBride’s book shines a light on this darkness and is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the workings of government in the North.