RHI scandal: Foster’s position “untenable if she does not step aside”

Posted By: January 04, 2017

BBC NI. Tuesday,  January 3,  2017

Sinn Féin has said if Arlene Foster does not step aside for an “independent investigation” into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Scheme, her position as the first minister will become “untenable.”

Mrs. Foster has resisted both calls to step aside and calls to resign.

Sinn Féin’s national chairperson Declan Kearney accused the DUP of “unvarnished arrogance” and warned of the likelihood of an assembly election.

The DUP said Mrs. Foster was “going no-where.”

RHI is approximately £490m over budget.

Mr. Kearney told BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster program that if the first minister does not step aside, it will be the “second time she will have compromised the joint nature of her office.”

He said the DUP was dragging the political process “towards an unprecedented tipping point.”

“She has already acted outside the integrity of the joint office when she addressed the assembly on the 19 December, and she would be doing the same again if she did not take our advice,” he added.

Image Caption The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was an attempt by the Northern Ireland Executive to help to increase consumption of heat from renewable sources
Mr. Kearney added: “There’s a distinct possibility that if the DUP leader does not follow Sinn Féin’s advice and step aside to allow for a robust independent investigation in order to restore public confidence in the political institutions, we are arguably in a situation where we will see an assembly election.”

Party support

However, DUP MLA Gregory Campbell said Mrs. Foster has “made it fully clear” that she’s not going anywhere and that the “party fully supports her.”

Mr. Campbell dismissed calls for a public inquiry into the RHI scandal, claiming such inquiries can last “10 to 12 years”.

He added: “A time-bound investigation is a good thing and that’s what we (the DUP) has been calling for.

“My understanding is that there are a series of proposals going between the DUP and Sinn Féin to convene that.”

‘Election a real possibility.’

Mr. Kearney’s comments come after an article in the republican newspaper, An Phoblacht, where he said: “It’s increasingly obvious the DUP have lost the run of themselves within the northern political institutions.”

He also repeated a call by his party colleague Martin McGuinness that Mrs. Foster should step aside as the first minister to “allow a time-framed, comprehensive, independent investigation” into the heating scheme.

On Tuesday, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill also said Mrs. Foster should step aside “to facilitate an independent investigation” and added that the party would be bringing a motion to the Assembly on 16 January to reflect its position.

Speaking on the Nolan Show on Tuesday, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said while his party did not fear an election; he did not think it would end the crisis.

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Mike Nesbitt said he did not think an assembly election was the solution to the crisis
“The solution is that those who are currently in charge of leading the executive and the assembly do the honorable thing, the only right thing in my mind, and step aside,” he said.

“That will start to restore public confidence in the integrity of the institutions – an election is not guaranteed to do that at all.”

Horse trading

Mr Nesbitt also said it remains to be seen if Sinn Féin would maintain its tough stance on the issue.

“I think anybody who knows how Sinn Féin and the DUP operate will know that there’s a bit of horse trading going on in the background,” he said.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said that a judge-led public inquiry was the only way forward and dismissed Sinn Féin suggestions that it could take years as “nonsense.”

Mrs. Long had written to the Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, David Gauke, calling on the British government to set up an independent, judge-led inquiry “as a matter of urgency.”

However, the government has rejected the appeal and said the operation of the RHI scheme was a matter for the executive.

In a statement, a government spokesman said: “it was right for the executive and the assembly to decide the form of any investigation or inquiry.”

Open inquiry

Earlier, the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone said that only a public inquiry brought forward under the Inquiries Act could restore public confidence.

“I want to see a situation where something’s not conducted behind closed doors by a panel of hand-picked people and hidden away from public view,” he said.

The DUP leader set up the RHI scheme in 2012 when she was minister for enterprise, trade, and investment.

Last month, she apologized for its lack of cost controls but defended her own role in the scheme.

Image caption First Minister Arlene Foster has resisted calls to step aside while the botched renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme is investigated
Sinn Féin and the DUP lead a power-sharing coalition government at Stormont, with the support of Justice Minister Claire Sugden, an independent MLA.

However, relationships have been under increased strain as the implications for the public purse of the botched RHI scheme are revealed.