THE Stormont Executive is facing a bill of up to £600,000 for the use of two RAF Chinook helicopters to bring emergency aid to stranded farmers and their livestock.
A political storm is already brewing after it was revealed on Thursday that the RAF will be charging the Executive for the use of its two Chinook CH-47D helicopters.
Security sources said the cost of flying a Chinook helicopter per hour is in the region of £20,000.
“It costs £5,000 per hour to run the PSNI’s ‘Hawkeye’ helicopter while in the sky,” said the security source.
“You can at least quadruple that for a Chinook.
“It holds around 1,000 gallons of fuel and uses just over 300 gallons an hour. That gives the crew around three hours flight time before they need to refuel.
“They are hugely expensive to run. A conservative estimate for using two Chinooks, including the four-hour flight from their base in Hampshire to Northern Ireland, would be around £600,000.”
After two days of dropping in food and provisions to snowbound areas of Co Down and Co Antrim on Wednesday and Thursday, the Chinooks are not flying on Friday as officials evaluate the current position with farmers.
The Ministry of Defence said the Chinooks had been stood down but were on standby if needed again.
However, Agriculture committee DUP chair Paul Frew criticised the decision, claiming Sinn Fein were playing politics with the RAF.
SAid the DUP MLA: “This decision is one that ranks of stupidity and is only being made to satisfy republican ideology and to protect Sinn Fein’s green clouded myth, that they sell their electorate, that somehow they are not part of the UK .
“She has betrayed the very people she is supposed to protect and represent, the farming community, at a time when they needed the department the most.
“How dare they withdraw much needed air support when we are still in the grip of this crisis, when so many are still stranded, when so many are still in despair trying to locate their livestock or more importantly trying to feed the livestock that is still alive.
“This is a fundamental error of judgement by the DARD Minister and it’s very clear she is either ignoring the plight of the farmer or she has misjudged the scale of this crisis,” added Paul Frew.
During a meeting on Thursday of the Stormont Agriculture Committee, the department’s permanent secretary Noel Lavery said that the Irish government would not be charging for the use of two Irish Air Corps helicopters in the mercy mission to farmers.
However, he said he understood that the RAF would be putting in a bill for the use of two of its workhorse Chinooks.
But Sinn Fein North Antrim MLA Oliver McMullan criticised the decision and called on the Ministry of Defence to waiver its fees.
There is expected to be talks in the coming weeks between Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond over the RAF bill.
While the RAF bill will become a political hot potato, farmers on the ground are still counting the cost of a wiped out lambing season.
However, they have been promised financial help from the Stormont Executive over the worst snow storms seen since 1963.
Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill announced on Thursday that the Executive had agreed to a £5 million hardship fund for farmers.
The said the decision to fund a fallen stock scheme and hardship package for farmers is welcome news for the industry.
The Executive will pay for the collection and disposal of sheep which died in the blizzard.
It is not yet clear how many sheep have died as a result of the snow.
The cost of disposing of the sheep could be between £300,000 and £1m.
Hardship payments will also be made to the worst affected farms.
The terms of the scheme have not been worked out yet but its understood a budget of £4m is being set aside for these payments.
Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill said; “The Executive was looking at how this could be funded and to try and find the money to bring forward that budget to support the hardship package.
“What I think we should focus on is the fact that we are signed up to providing a hardship package for the farming community.”
The President of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, Harry Sinclair, says support for the measures extends beyond the farming community:
“People have seen the pictures and are totally shocked and want to do all they can to help,” he said.
“It’s the first time people have seen this scale of devastation and the general feeling of most people is wanting to help the farmers.”