N. Ireland Politics

RHI scandal: Jonathan Bell in heating scheme revelations

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Media captionJonathan Bell believes his political career will be ruined by his revelations

A former DUP minister has said he will reveal what he describes as "the truth" about the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

In a BBC interview to be broadcast at 22:40 GMT, Jonathan Bell MLA vows to tell "the truth" about how the scheme careered out of control.

He believes his political career will be ruined by the revelations.

Reacting to the news ahead of the broadcast, Arlene Foster insisted that she has "nothing to hide".

Speaking to the Impartial Reporter newspaper, the first minister said that "to date, there's been about 10% fact and 90% spin about this story".

She accused others of "playing party politics", and that Mr Bell's future is in the hands of DUP party officers.

'God told me'

During an emotional conversation with Stephen Nolan, Mr Bell said: "I've talked with my wife. I do talk with my children, and given the level of exposure that comes with [speaking out], it'll not be easy.

Renewable Heat Incentive scheme in numbers

  • 1,946 applications were approved under the non-domestic RHI scheme - a 98% approval rate
  • 984 were received in just three months - September to November 2015 - after officials announced plans to cut the subsidy but before the change took effect
  • The assembly's Public Accounts Committee was told that a subsequent independent audit had found issues at half of the 300 installations inspected
  • 14 of those fell into the most serious category where fraud was suspected
  • Payments to five of these 14 sites have been suspended

"But my wife told me this morning: 'Jonathan, tell the truth. Please tell the truth.' And I've now done that.

"I am a very poor Christian, but I have a great God. And I believe God does not punish people for telling the truth."

Speaking through tears, he said: "This is difficult. There's a ward in the Ulster Hospital, the Maynard ward, which is closed. Do you think I could sit back and not tell the truth? Not when God has told me to tell the truth.

"Dr Paisley was right - tell the truth, should the heavens fall on you. So do with me as they will."

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Media captionArlene Foster says she has "nothing to hide" over the renewable heat incentive scheme.

The botched heating initiative could cost taxpayers as much as £400m.

Meanwhile, Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has decided to invite Mrs Foster to give evidence about her role in the scheme. Also invited before the committee are Mr Bell, Sammy Wilson and Patsy McGlone.

The influential assembly committee scrutinises public spending and is conducting an inquiry into the scheme.

The energy subsidy initiative was set up by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) in 2012, encouraging businesses and other non-domestic users to install renewable heating systems.

But the payments it handed out were greater than the cost of the fuels used, meaning claimants could earn more cash the more fuel they burned.

Mrs Foster was the enterprise minister at the time of the scheme's creation and has said civil servants did not alert her to its flaws.

Stormont could have to find about £20m a year over the next 20 years to cover the overspend.

BBC Radio Ulster's The Stephen Nolan Show revealed on Wednesday that Mrs Foster personally fought a decision by Mr Bell to close the flawed energy scheme.

Image copyright Tchara
Image caption The RHI scheme offered claimants £1.60 for every £1 of fuel they burned

The DUP said Mr Bell kept the scheme open "following representations, including those from other political parties".

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Mrs Foster must stand aside while she addresses questions over her role in what he described as "the biggest public finance scandal in the history of devolution".

But the DUP's deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, has accused Mrs Foster's opponents of engaging in a "witch-hunt".

The woman who flagged concerns about abuse of the RHI scheme to Arlene Foster said she did not give permission to the DUP to make her original email public.

She told The Stephen Nolan Show: "Only in Northern Ireland would somebody with the label of whistleblower have an email shared without their consent."

The whistleblower added: "I know that we have to sort out this whole RHI thing, but we also have to sort out how people like me are treated".

She said that concerns should be "properly considered instead of being swept under the carpet".

Stephen Nolan's interview with former Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell on the RHI scandal will be broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland on Wednesday at 22:40 BST.

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