The Ulster Farmers’ Union has confirmed that the family of its president has an RHI boiler.
The development brings to four the number of current or former UFU presidents who are receiving money for RHI installations.
The influential UFU, which has already admitted to having lobbied to keep the scheme open by means of a ‘grace period’ before the massive autumn 2015 spike in applications, said that the family of current president Barclay Bell has “a single RHI boiler”.
The union said that Mr Bell used the boiler – which is believed to be on his family farm – “on farm woodland and to dry grain”.
There is no suggestion that Mr Bell, who is understood to have had several environmental schemes on his farm prior to installing the RHI boiler, has in any way been among those abusing the scheme.
The UFU set out Mr Bell’s link to the RHI scheme on Monday after The Irish News revealed that his predecessor, Harry Sinclair, is also claiming under the scheme.
Mr Sinclair told the newspaper that he considered Andrew Crawford, Arlene Foster’s former special adviser, to be a friend but stressed that they are not in regular contact and have never discussed RHI.
The prominent farmer declined to give details of how many boilers he operates at his Draperstown farm but The Irish News reported that they are used to dry woodchip for sale to other boiler users in a business called Glenvilla Ultimate Dryers, which was incorporated in June 2015.
He joined the RHI scheme in October 2015, in what is now known to have been the height of the ‘spike’ in RHI applications, but said that he had taken time to consider the scheme, adding that “it wasn’t a ‘jump in’ sort of thing”. It had already emerged that Ian Marshall had applied for three boilers in 2015, while he was UFU president.
And another prominent former UFU president, the keen environmentalist and one-time politicical candidate John Gilliland, had voluntarily gone public several weeks ago to state that he has three RHI boilers on his Londonderry farm.
The UFU issued a strong statement denouncing what it said were “attempts by the media to link progressive, well-known farmers and the union to the RHI scandal”.
The union said that the focus should instead be on “the key issue of how such a poorly designed scheme was put in place, and why controls were inadequate”.
The UFU said that it had “already admitted” that it had pressed for a “grace period to allow those with investment plans and capital commitments in place to enter the RHI scheme” to enter ahead of the spike in applications.
UFU chief executive Wesley Aston said it was no surprise that those involved with the UFU should be part of the RHI: “These are, by definition, progressive farmers who have always taken up new ideas.
“They were encouraged by those buying what they produce and by government to embrace this scheme,” said Mr Aston, adding that some farmers did so to “meet the pressures exerted on them by those to whom they sell their end product”.