Green energy scheme was not a personal priority, says Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster has said the ill-fated Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme was not a "personal priority" for her and she wishes she had asked more questions about it.
Northern Ireland's former enterprise minister told the public inquiry into Stormont's botched green energy scheme that she had a "false sense of security" due to the scheme "working" in Great Britain.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader also said she was "surprised" that her special adviser, Dr Andrew Crawford, had shared government documents about the scheme with his farmer cousin, and defended the part-time role he currently has with the party.
Mrs Foster was in charge of the planning of the scheme in 2012 before a series of fatal design flaws in the green subsidy project exposed Stormont to a huge overspend, paying out more than it cost to buy wood fuel.
She told the inquiry: "It's very difficult for me to go rooting about in a department to find out what isn't being brought up to me."
Asked whether she felt she should have done more "rooting around", Mrs Foster said: "Through hindsight, of course one wishes that I had asked more questions in relation to the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.
"But putting myself back at that period of time, as I think I've indicated on a number of occasions, it wasn't a personal priority of mine within the department.
"I had other personal priorities. It doesn't mean I wasn't interested - before somebody writes that tomorrow."
Mrs Foster said the RHI scheme was not one she was "passionately looking at every day of the week".
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin asked Mrs Foster if she did not get the impression it was "a unique scheme" which was "highly unpredictable" and "highly volatile", adding: "That didn't help to boost it up a bit in your concerns?"
Mrs Foster said she was probably in a "false sense of security" that Great Britain was rolling the scheme out.
"I had the sense that it was working in GB, therefore it was coming to Northern Ireland," she said.
Mrs Foster said she was not aware that her adviser, Dr Crawford, had sent documents relating to the scheme to his cousin.
"I certainly didn't have any knowledge of it at the time. I do acknowledge that Andrew has accepted it was wrong thing to do. It was inappropriate and he has apologised, and I recognise that.
"But it's quite clearly something that he should not have been engaged in at that time, or indeed at any time," she said, adding that she was "surprised" at his actions.
Mrs Foster was asked about Dr Crawford still working for the DUP and it was suggested to her that this may lead people to believe that the party do not think what he did was "particularly serious".
She replied: "He is conducting some research in terms of Brexit for a member of the European Parliament. It's very much a backroom role. He's using his expertise in relation to that.
"It's not a full-time job by any means. I think that, given everything that happened in late 2016, early 2017, and I hear very clearly what you're asking me around the emails, and that was inappropriate and was disappointing from my point of view.
"But I don't think that that should bar a person from having part-time research employment forever and a day.
"And I am quite sure that he has learned his lesson in relation to that because of the way in which things transpired in January and February of 2016, and he has been the subject ... for a man who never sought the media spotlight, he has been greatly thrown into the media spotlight, and has suffered as a result of that," she said.
Sir Patrick replied that it was "hardly surprising" the media took an interest in him "given what happened".
Mrs Foster answered: "Well, I think the scale, Chair, of what happened to him, was difficult to take in at the time."
She said the media scrutiny was to be expected, but said what was not expected was "some of the more outrageous commentary around it".