A whistleblower who raised concerns about the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme was possibly “fed to the wolves” by the DUP when the scheme’s flaws were exposed, the chairman of the public inquiry has suggested.
DUP leader Arlene Foster agreed that Janette O’Hagan was “caught in political crossfire”, adding that she was sorry the businesswoman ended up in the furore.
Mrs O’Hagan sent emails requesting a meeting with Mrs Foster to discuss the scheme in 2013.
In one she mentioned that the scheme pays customers to use as much as they can, and in some cases this is leading to “misuse”.
In 2016, the DUP released a copy of an email which it claimed “nailed the myth” that Mrs Foster had not done enough to pursue whistleblower claims.
At the time, the party said the correspondence was sent by a whistleblower but that it made no mention of RHI concerns.
It said those concerns were only aired with officials when Mrs Foster referred the email to them.
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin suggested one interpretation of the DUP’s release of the earlier email which did not mention “misuse” was that Mrs O’Hagan was being “fed to the wolves”.
Mrs O’Hagan sent a further email to Mrs Foster requesting a meeting, pointing out that many potential customers were “no longer worried about becoming more efficient”.
It added: “In fact, it pays them to use as much as they can. In fact, the incentive to use more is leading to misuse in some cases.”
Mrs Foster was asked about not picking up on the reference to “misuse” in the email.
She said she understood that Mrs O’Hagan’s concerns were being dealt with by the department.
Mrs Foster was asked if the word “misuse” had not “jumped off the page”, but Mrs Foster said she did not notice it.
It was put to Mrs Foster she could have read the email more closely, and she said: “Yes, I could have, of course.”
Mrs Foster said this is “all with the benefit of hindsight”, adding that we all look for the “pursuit of affection”.
She said: “None of us are perfect, and I never claimed to be.”
The first email sent by the whistleblower was released with some redactions, but even with those redactions Mrs O’Hagan believed it was not difficult for people to figure out who had sent the email.
The inquiry has previously heard that Mrs O’Hagan felt let down and frustrated about how she was treated.
Thursday’s hearing included a discussion about a press release from the DUP press office in 2016 which said that the 2013 email “raised no concerns about RHI”.
Mrs Foster said that when the press release went out it was her understanding that the party believed that the only email that existed was the first email that went into the department.
She acknowledged that she knew now that that was wrong.
“Looking at this in the cold light of day, one can understand totally why Mrs O’Hagan would be upset at that time, and indeed now.
“This was a storm that was going on at the time, and there was a lot of fire fighting going on to try and deal with the allegations that were being made around the RHI scheme,” she said.
Asked if she would agree that Mrs O’Hagan was “caught in the political crossfire”, Mrs Foster said: “Yes, absolutely.”
She said that in the “melee” at the time it is easy to see why misunderstandings occurred, but said it was not acceptable.
Mrs Foster added: “Certainly as party leader I am sorry that Mrs O’Hagan got caught up in the middle of all of this.”
She was asked if she thought the DUP had done enough to safeguard Mrs O’Hagan’s interests, and she pointed out that the party was at times receiving queries on an hourly basis from media outlets.
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick said Mrs O’Hagan’s email was released despite her being “adamant” that it should not be.
Mrs Foster said the party’s understanding was that she was content.
Sir Patrick said: “We really need to know how that understanding came to be formed.”
Mrs Foster said she was sorry she could not help with that as she “was not in the middle of this discussion”.
Sir Patrick said: “There are several different possibilities. One of which was she was fed to the wolves.”
Meanwhile, Mrs Foster pointed out earlier on Thursday that she does not observe the inquiry obsessively.
“I don’t normally sit and watch the RHI inquiry,” she said.