The economy minister at the centre of the DUP’s response to the ongoing RHI scandal in Northern Ireland has announced his intention to publish the names of businesses claiming from the scheme, despite questions of legality surrounding such action.
Simon Hamilton announced earlier this week that he believed in the interest of “complete openness and transparency” the names should be released, despite participants in the scheme thought to be protected by data privacy laws.
The DUP MLA said: “It has always been my intention to publish this information. However, I have equally always been mindful that I can only do so in accordance with my legal obligations.
“Last month, my department wrote to all of those participating in the non-domestic RHI scheme indicating my desire to publish recipients’ details. The department is currently analysing the responses received and are following a clear process as required under section 10 of the 1998 Data Protection Act.
“The process will balance the competing interests of transparency and the right to privacy and protection in accordance with the law.”
Hamilton believes this process will be concluded early next week and is expecting to publish the information on Wednesday 25 January.
Many of the claimants contacted by the government have refused to have their details known following a backlash against those already made public.
The Ulster Farmers’ Union released a statement last week advising its members to resist such plans, adding that those using the scheme legitimately to reduce energy bills should not be made scapegoats or treated unfairly for the failures of the scheme.
UFU chief executive, Wesley Aston, has said members details should be kept private unless audits have been carried out of their installation to determine any foul play on behalf of the claimant.
"Without the audit, farmers risk being criticised, without being able to show they acted within the terms of the scheme," he said.
Officials said that under the rules, it could provide detailed information about their installations however the information did not include the names of claimants. It does however involve location, technology type, installation capacity, accreditation date and subsidy.
Much of this information was published earlier this week by the BBC’s Stephen Nolan, who released geographical information of where the RHI has been most popular in Ireland, and among which business types.
Appetite for such information to be released has grown in the short time since Hamilton’s plans were known following a series resignations of senior special advisors who have been accused of having close links to claimants of the scheme.
Andrew Crawford, the former special advisor to Arlene Foster, has resigned from his current role at Stormont after being accused of exerting pressure to keep the RHI open when ministers wanted it closed.
The unsubstantiated claims were made by Andrew McCormick, permanent secretary at the Department for the Economy during a meeting with the Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) earlier this week.
He claimed that Crawford had exerted influence on his successor, DUP special adviser Timothy Cairns, at the time discussions were under way to impose caps on the incentive in 2015.
Crawford had earlier revealed his poultry farmer brother was a recipient of payments under the RHI scheme.
In a statement following his resignation, the former SPaD said: “In light of the allegations made at the Public Accounts Committee yesterday I believe it is appropriate that I step back from my position in government and resign as a special adviser.
"I want to see a full and independent inquiry set up immediately so that it will become clear that at all times I acted with complete integrity in all that I did.”
Hamilton’s special adviser also stepped aside from any involvement in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme for failing to declare a family link.
John Robinson's father-in-law receives payment from the scheme for two boilers and had been accused by former DUP minister Jonathan Bell of interfering in the RHI scheme.
In a statement the DUP said Mr Robinson had no role in his father-in-law's business, but he was stepping aside to avoid the "accusation or perception of a conflict of interest".
A public enquiry has been announced by Sinn Féin finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, who sought legal advice and determined that no other type of inquiry was now feasible given the time pressures caused by the dissolution of the Northern Irish Assembly.
In a statement released yesterday, Ó Muilleoir said: “It is clear that, with time short until the Assembly dissolves, the only way to serve the public interest is for me as Finance Minister to move to institute a public inquiry immediately.
“This enquiry will be impartial and objective. I will not interfere in its work. It will be tasked to get to the truth of this issue. I give a commitment that I or any Sinn Féin Minister will release the report in full to the public on receipt.
“I am aware that the RHI issue goes beyond financial matters to questions of governance and probity. By getting to the truth of the RHI scandal, this inquiry report will, I believe, address those wider issues, and, therefore, put the public first.”
Former First Minister Arlene Foster welcomed the move, saying: “Finally we will get some due process in and around these matters and we will get to the truth of what happened in relation to RHI scheme.”