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RHI inquiry: Foster challenged on green scheme problems

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Arlene Foster has been the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) since December 2015
DUP leader Arlene Foster has been challenged to explain why she forgot about a meeting in which she was told of problems with a green energy scheme. Mrs Foster is giving evidence to the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry.She was in charge of energy matters when the scheme was set up in 2012 by the NI Executive to encourage uptake of eco-friendly heating systems.An overgenerous offer of fuel subsidies meant costs spiralled out of control, leaving NI taxpayers with a
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Q&A: What is the RHI inquiry?
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The meeting happened in early June 2015; Mrs Foster had just moved from the enterprise department, which ran RHI, to become finance minister.
She told the public inquiry - which was set up to investigate the scheme's failings in January 2017 - the warning was the first time she had been made aware of possible problems.
'Dropped the ball'
Mrs Foster said she was told about the issues by former DUP special adviser (Spad) Timothy Cairns, who was then working in the enterprise department.He told Mrs Foster that officials in enterprise had "dropped the ball" and failed to ensure the proper approvals were in place for spending on RHI.
Who is Arlene Foster?
Northern Ireland's former first minister headed up the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) when the RHI scheme was designed in 2012.Crucial controls to limit the scheme's cost were not introduced, something she has since said is her "deepest political regret".But Mrs Foster - who spent six months as finance minister from June 2015 before being elevated to party leader and first minister - fiercely contested claims by Jonathan Bell, her party colleague and successor as enterprise minister, that she ordered him to keep the scheme open.In the wake of his allegations, she faced calls to step aside to allow a judge-led public inquiry into the scheme.Her time as first minister was brought to an abrupt end when the late Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein resigned as deputy first minister, forcing an election last March.She remains DUP leader, but there has been no return to Stormont for almost 600 days, due to the ongoing impasse between her party and Sinn Fein.
Mrs Foster said she had "no clear recollection" of the meeting, although she did not dispute that it happened.She said she had conflated the meeting in early June, with another later that month where Mr Cairns had asked for help from Mrs Foster's ministerial adviser Andrew Crawford, who had just spent seven years in enterprise.Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin asked why she had no recollection of the early June meeting.
The RHI public inquiry is being chaired by Sir Patrick Coghlin and has heard 91 days of evidence so far
She said she did not believe it had been presented to her as a "big issue".Sir Patrick said: "If someone comes along and tells you that a scheme which had developed under your bailiwick is in difficulties to the extent that the department has dropped the ball, one might have thought, you would have thought that was quite important."Mrs Foster said she could not explain why she had forgotten about the meeting, but added she had many matters to deal with in her role as finance minister.
'Very strange'
The DUP leader said she believed that the toxic relationship between enterprise minister Jonathan Bell and his Spad Timothy Cairns had contributed to the huge problems in RHI.She said the relationship between minister and Spad was based on trust and mutual understanding and if that was missing, it was hard to operate.
Three former DUP special advisers - John Robinson, Stephen Brimstone, Timothy Johnston - will appear before the RHI inquiry later this week
She said she found it "very strange" that even though there was knowledge of problems from early June 2015, and a proposal to address them from early July, that it took until the end of August for it to be sorted out by the minister and his Spad.She said it had been the then-party leader Peter Robinson's decision to keep the two men together.Inquiry counsel David Scoffield asked if that was another way of saying it was Peter Robinson's fault.Mrs Foster said Mr Robinson would have known that Jonathan Bell had a "temper and a certain way of doing things" and had still decided they should continue to work together.She said it was known that Mr Robinson and Mr Bell "had a very close relationship".Sir Patrick reminded Mrs Foster that the evidence to the inquiry showed that others in the party had been feeding into a wider discussion about the plans for cost controls.Later, Mrs Foster conceded there was "room for improvement" in how unelected special advisers (Spads) are appointed by political parties at Stormont.The inquiry has already heard claims that the DUP had its own practice of appointing advisers to ministers, which directly went against the ministerial code that states ministers are supposed to choose who they want to advise them.
'Transparency'
Mr Bell had claimed he would not have chosen Timothy Cairns as his Spad, but he signed a pre-written letter drafted by the party confirming he was choosing Mr Cairns.Mrs Foster told the inquiry she acknowledged the need for improvement, but said it had to come "across the board" from all political parties at Stormont.Sir Patrick said it seemed to him that there had been a common approach by the parties that there was "an act and a mandatory code, but no-one pays a great deal of attention to it". Mrs Foster said she could understand the panel's "frustration" about the code, but said there had been legislative changes throughout the past 10 years to how advisers were appointed."Should there be more, yes I think there probably should, in terms of transparency," she added.In addition to Mrs Foster, three senior DUP officials will also be giving evidence to the inquiry this week:
Wednesday: Former Spad and current DUP director of communications, John Robinson
Thursday: Former Spad Stephen Brimstone
Friday: Former Spad and current DUP chief executive, Timothy Johnston
Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry
Arlene Foster
DUP (Democratic Unionist Party)
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