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22 December 2016

Holy Smoke

Holy Smoke

The Northern Ireland Renewable Heating Incentive

If 2016 has taught us anything, it's that politics is full of surprises. As this tumultuous year was draw-ing to a close and new year reflections were already beginning, local politics had one more surprise up its sleeve. This came not from the fertile ground of constitutional difference, but from the seem-ingly innocuous Renewable Heating Initiative (RHI).

This scheme was launched in November 2012 by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Invest-ment (DETI). The minister is charge was Arlene Foster, now first minister of Northern Ireland.

The scheme gave a financial incentive to encourage businesses and other non-domestic premises, such as churches, schools and agricultural property, to switch to renewable heating sources and move away from fossil fuels. However reports from a whistleblower in 2013 and 2014 highlighted that the scheme may be being abused.

In recent weeks stories have emerged of empty barns being needlessly heated in order to gain more money from the scheme. Fundamentally the flaw in the scheme was lack of any cap or limit on the amount of public money available for this initiative. The more you burned, the more you earned.

Exactly what happened in the ensuing months remains a matter of debate and controversy as dif-ferent stories have come to light. The scheme was eventually closed in February 2016 although this was following an extension of the initiative for two to three months in late 2015.

It is alleged that failure to reduce the tariff between September and November 2015 alone will cost the tax payer around £400 million over the next 20 years. This money will come out of the block grant that pays for most of the devolved public services in Northern Ireland such as health and ed-ucation.

The controversy took a more personal turn when former minister Jonathan Bell, the successor of Arlene Foster at DETI, broke with DUP protocol and gave an unauthorised TV interview. In it he alleged that his attempts to end the scheme were thwarted, ignored and overruled by special advi-sors (party appointed officials, referred to as Spads) within the department of finance and personnel and the office of the first minister and deputy first minister.

This interview was immediately followed by a contrasting understanding of events from Arlene Fos-ter who denied any cover up and impropriety and personally accused Mr Bell of using his bulk to intimidate her and other women.

The story is still unfolding, some days on an hourly basis. On Monday all of the other parties sitting in Stormont called for Mrs Foster to stand down while a judicial enquiry is established to uncover the truth. The opposition parties entered a motion of no confidence, which was defeated because the result didn't have the required quota of unionist support.

This story raises huge questions of integrity and truth-telling, trust and character, stewardship and accountability. Many of the key people involved would claim to follow Jesus. Indeed before Mr Bell's TV interview began, viewers were shown images of him kneeling as his father and another man laid hands on and prayed for him. Throughout the interview he spoke of his Christian convic-tion that God calls Christians to tell the truth. He also quoted his late party founder and church lead-er Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley saying: "Tell the truth should the heavens fall on you." This gave an already politically-charged story a very publicly religious dimension.

As the story and quest for truth continues - in an apparently post-truth world! - let's step back from the personalities and parties involved for a moment. As Christians we acknowledge the righteous anger and frustration felt when it is alleged that both truth and the stewardship of scarce public re-sources has been taken lightly.

We pray for wisdom and integrity as our political leaders address this complex and demanding situ-ation. We pray for all our politicians, that political gain, party and power would not cloud judgement in these moments. We remember those who will be most affected, our friends, family and neigh-bours who are struggling to put food on the table and to heat their homes at this time of year.

Finally in our pursuit of truth and justice we remember the fact that we are all the recipients of scandalous grace, who owed a debt too big for any of us to repay. We pray that God the giver of this grace would be honoured by all of those, whether in power or opposition, who claim to know Him.

Image: CC0 Alternative Heat