Foster: DUP handling of botched green energy scheme hurt and offended voters

Arlene Foster has admitted that the DUP’s handling of a botched green energy scheme had “hurt and offended” voters and members of the public.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) public inquiry, which has taken detailed and frank evidence about the Stormont initiative that ended up massively over-budget, has been painful for the Democratic Unionists, she conceded.

The party leader reiterated her apology and said she was deeply sorry for the mistakes.

She told her annual party conference in Belfast: “Some of our past decisions and actions have left a lot to be desired and I know that they have personally hurt and offended many of our members, voters and the public.”

A public inquiry led by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin has exposed many of the failings at the heart of the scheme.

It was designed to encourage businesses to shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources like wood but ended up paying out more than it cost to fuel the burners – earning it the moniker “Cash for Ash”.

The result was an anticipated massive overspend, falling to the Northern Irish taxpayer to pick up.

Sinn Fein’s late Stormont deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest at the DUP’s handling of the RHI and Stormont powersharing collapsed early last year.

Repeated rounds of negotiations have failed to resurrect the institutions.

The public inquiry has cast light on the inner machinations of the DUP as the scheme was designed and implemented.

Mrs Foster’s former special adviser, Dr Andrew Crawford, had several close relatives with RHI boilers and his actions have faced serious scrutiny.

A senior civil servant has claimed potential applicants were warned to get their RHI applications in quickly before the scheme closed to new applicants.

The account of Mrs Foster’s former enterprise minister, Jonathan Bell, has also laid bare the tensions between Mr Bell and the rest of the party.

Mrs Foster told her party conference: “The public inquiry has been difficult for many individually and painful for the party collectively.

“No party would want to have all of its dealings exposed for all to see at a public inquiry, especially in the unique system of government we have, with the struggles and strains required to make it work.

“But I make no excuses. Today, as leader of the party, I apologise.

“As a party we are deeply, deeply sorry for the mistakes we made and for the things we got wrong during that period.

“I am determined our party will learn the lessons from RHI and how Government business was conducted at Stormont more generally.”

She said there were lessons to be learned in how the party appointed special advisers to aid ministers, the number required, how they operated and were regulated in Government.

Criticism at the inquiry has touched on the relative inexperience of those handling the landmark scheme.

Mrs Foster said there should be a “fundamental appraisal” of the Civil Service, with greater expertise needed, proper records should be kept and greater transparency displayed.

“Over the course of the last 12 months there have been a number of other areas where behaviour in our ranks has not matched the standards expected of people holding public office.

“We must ensure that there is no repeat of such behaviour and that those high standards we aspire to ourselves and that others rightly require of us are applicable at every level within this party.”