The Ulster Farmers’ Union has hit back at attempts by the media to link progressive, well known farmers and the Union to the RHI scandal. The organisation, which represents 11,500 farming families across Northern Ireland, says those doing so are trying to imply that legitimate users have done something wrong, while at the same time allowing the focus to switch from the key issue of how such a poorly designed scheme was put in place, and why controls were inadequate. It says the result has been a scramble to launch unfair and spurious accusations – while at the same time ignoring examples of the scheme being abused.
“It is wrong to see farmers as soft targets and to seek to draw into the scandal people who invested a lot of their own money in boilers to replace other, less efficient, on farm energy sources,” said UFU chief executive, Wesley Aston. The UFU has already admitted it pressed for a grace period to allow those with investment plans and capital commitments in place to enter the RHI scheme, since this was the basis on which the investment was made. “We will always press for fair treatment for our members. We did so over a grace period. This was with officials and not with politicians or special advisers,” said Aston.
The UFU chief executive added that 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 Aston. He said those doing so included the family of the current UFU president, who has a single RHI boiler to utilise on farm woodland and to dry grain.
Aston said what was happening now was a form of victim shaming, in that as taxpayers farmers were also victims of a scheme put in place without adequate controls. “It seems that with the election under way some are now seeking out soft targets over RHI. I would suggest they turn the focus back to where the blame should be – on a poorly designed scheme and the lack of government audits to find and punish those breaking the rules. Instead they are allowing those with things to hide to divert the media into chasing those who have done nothing wrong, and who invested a lot of their own money to cut costs and to meet the pressures exerted on them by those to whom they sell their end product,” said Aston.