Farmers in Northern Ireland risk being ostracised for participating in a renewable energy scheme, even though they themselves tried to warn officials about flaws that were leading to overpayments. The scheme, which was intended to encourage more efficiency through the use of clean renewable energy, instead rewarded energy waste and was closed amid a costings oversight of millions of pounds.
The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was introduced by Northern Ireland's Assembly in 2012 to try and meet a 10% renewable energy target by 2020. Unlike its British counterpart, no tiered payment system was incorporated to prevent businesses from profiting directly from subsidy payments. In Britain the more energy a business used, the less it received relative to its outlay. In Northern Ireland however, after covering their own outlay costs, recipients of the scheme were paid £1.60 for every £1 spent on approved heating with no upward limit.
This encouraged the expansion of heating systems beyond owners' needs and led the scheme into a projected £400m overspend across the next twenty years. The RHI closed to new entrants last year. Now the fall-out threatens losses on honest businesses, including many farmers, who purchased expensive approved heating systems, as well as those who invested in plantations to supply biomass.
Dubbed cash-for-ash by the media, the RHI scheme also threatens to upend the delicate political balance that has prevailed since the Northern Assembly was restored from suspension in 2007. The resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister had the effect of removing Arlene Foster from her position as First Minister, creating disharmony between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party. Foster refused to resign despite having overseen the flawed initiative when it was first launched.
Farmers have been accused of profiting, but most are almost certainly innocent of wrong-doing. Pig and poultry farms installed wood chip heating systems under the scheme, but unlike others who flocked to take advantage, they tried to warn authorities that there were serious problems with the RHI. The Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) had a meeting with department officials in July 2015, during which they outlined the scheme's flaws and warned that a surge of interest was likely to come from profiteers. Nothing was done and 984 new applications were received in the three months from September that year (a total of 1,946 applicants were approved under the scheme).
In February 2016 the scheme was abruptly closed because officials realised that it could not be financed. As details of how the overspend occurred, the scandal became a saga. Arelene Foster refused to take responsibility. The UFU warning had been issued during the term of her successor as minister for enterprise, Jonathan Bell. Without a responsible leadership, the press sought out people it could blame. As many of the scheme's initial recipients were farmers, they became an easy target for vitriol.
In December 2016, Ian Marshall a farmer from Markethill, Co Armagh went public, calling for an end to the witch-hunt of farmers. Marshall had installed a drier for woodchips and grain under the scheme which he says cost him thousands up front. He told the Belfast Telegraph, “Fundamentally, this is a good scheme but it has been poorly managed. The genuine businesses that have joined the scheme are being made to feel like criminals.”
Last week the UFU chief executive Wesley Aston said his organisation was advising members not to give permission for their names to be made public until they had been audited. He said: “Without the audit farmers risk being criticised, without being able to show they acted within the terms of the scheme. It is up to individuals to decide whether they give permission to be named – but we fear this is not about transparency but efforts to shift the focus from those who failed to safeguard the taxpayer.” He added, “those who used the scheme legitimately must not be tried and convicted in the court of public opinion.”