(Image: Niall Carson / PA Wire)
The Renewable Heat Incentive
In 2012, North Irish Enterprise, Trade, and Investment Minister Arlene Foster set up a program designed to encourage citizens to heat their homes using renewable energy. The Renewable Heat Incentive sought to power 10% of North Irish homes with renewable sources by 2020.
The plan was approved by the government with a budget of £25 million for four years, and paying £1.60 to each household for each £1.00 spent on heating. This effectively allowed people to be payed to heat their homes, and caused cases in which people would heat abandoned sheds in order to receive the payment from the government.
The lack of cost controls on the plan allowed the price of the program to spiral, reaching £490 million by the time the scandal was publicized. The program was shut down in February of 2016, 1 month after Minister Arlene Foster became First Minister of Northern Ireland.
Reports surfaced of whistleblowers who attempted to get in contact with the Foster’s department over citizens taking advantage of the program. Foster’s successor as minister, Jonathan Bell, claimed on a television interview that Foster not only delayed the closure of the program, but then tried to hide her involvement by wiping the records.
An investigation was then launched into possible fraud at the department, as Foster responded to Bell’s claims, stating that it was he who kept the program running.
Senior civil servants spoke out against Foster, saying that her office pressured the Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Investment to keep the program open even at its peak. Protests then began to break out, calling for Foster’s resignation as First Minister in late 2016. At the same time, Bell was suspended from his political party for speaking with the media without permission.
Turmoil in the Legislative Assembly
On December 19th, 2016, the Legislative Assembly was recalled to hear a statement by Foster. However, as Northern Ireland’s political structure requires the Deputy First Minister’s approval to make a statement, which Foster did not have, the other Members of the Legislative Assembly tried to block her through the speaker. Since Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness’s Sinn Féin was fighting Foster’s DUP over the scandal, he led a walkout of MLAs when Speaker of the Legislative Assembly Robin Newton, a DUP member, refused to let other members speak when they attempted to object to Foster’s statement. Newton eventually allowed Foster to read the statement, but by that time only DUP members remained in the Legislative Assembly.
The opposition parties then filed a motion of exclusion against Foster, which, if passed, would remove her from office. Although the motion was passed with a majority of votes, Northern Ireland requires a majority in the unionist and a majority in the nationalist parties to pass. Since the unionist DUP was the largest party in the Legislative Assembly, the motion failed.
Foster defended herself, stating that she would be found innocent if an investigation was conducted and therefore had no reason to resign from office.
Resignation of Martin McGuiness
With all legislative means to remove Foster during an investigation blocked, Martin McGuiness announced his resignation on January 8th, 2017, which would mean that the office of First Minister would be vacated as well.
Sinn Féin would then be given seven days to elect a replacement for McGuiness, after which if no candidate was chosen, the North Irish Executive would fall and Foster would be removed.
Both the British and the Irish governments stepped in to intervene, speaking both with Foster and with Sinn Féin leaders to negotiate a solution as protests against Foster grew.
In response to McGuiness’s resignation, Foster said that she was disappointed, and that by resigning Sinn Féin had taken away the government’s ability to find a solution to the RHI problem.
The Collapse of the Executive
On January 16th, at a session of the Legislative Assembly, Sinn Féin announced that they would refuse to nominate a replacement for McGuiness, because of Foster’s “arrogance.”
In doing so, the office of First Minister was vacated as well, and the Northern Irish Executive collapsed, leaving Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire in control until elections could be held, now scheduled for March 2nd, 2017.
Foster lamented the collapse, stating that Northern Ireland did not “want, or need an election,” and that such an election could result in Northern Ireland returning to direct rule under Great Britain.
DUP Family Links
Former DUP member and minister Jonathan Bell began revealing details about the Renewable Heat Incentive. He stated that one of the DUP advisers in the Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Investment had family links to the scheme. John Robinson eventually admitted that his father-in-law was signed up to the scheme while he was assigned to oversee it.