Arlene Foster has called for an immediate investigation into Northern Ireland’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) after the resignation of deputy first minister Martin McGuinness forced her out of office.
Speaking yesterday (10 January), the outgoing DUP First Minister responded to continued pressure on her position over her handling of the RHI scheme, which has left the Northern Ireland Executive owing claimants £490 million.
She claimed there had been political agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin over the need for an enquiry, but that the “major sticking point” had been over her continued presence as first minister while such an investigation took place.
Foster had refused to step aside as, in her words, to do so “would have led to the conclusion that I was guilty of something improper which is not the case”.
However, under the devolved administration’s joint terms of office Foster was forced out of her position following McGuinness’ resignation on Monday and is now backing an investigation.
“I am no longer the first minister so therefore there is no reason, under Sinn Féin’s reasoning, why an investigation cannot now be established,” she said.
“I want to see an investigation commenced quickly so that it will be independently demonstrated that I did nothing wrong and that my integrity is vindicated.”
However, Sinn Féin MLA Michelle O’Neill called the U-turn “an act of desperation”, and said: “If the DUP were serious about addressing the political crisis then Arlene Foster would have stepped aside a month ago as Martin McGuinness suggested privately to her.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams added: “The money squandered in the RHI project belonged to unionists as well as other taxpayers. It is money which should have been used to end poverty and disadvantage or to build public services. No minister responsible for such bad governance in any other administration would be still in office.”
The party has also assured the electorate that it will not accept “a botched solution” to the RHI scheme.
Despite this growing tension between the two leading parties in Northern Ireland, Foster has said that she remains open to talks with Sinn Fein or any other parties in the Assembly to avoid a snap election.
Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, secretary of state for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire will be forced to set a date for an Assembly election should the offices of First and deputy First Minister not be filled within 7 days from Mr McGuinness’s resignation.
In a statement to the House of Commons yesterday, the MP for Old Bexley & Sidcup said: “The clock is ticking. If there is no resolution an election is inevitable despite the widely held view that this election may deepen divisions and threaten the continuity of the devolved institutions.”
In the meantime economy minister Simon Hamilton is expected to outline cost controls over the failed scheme which will be sent to the Department of Finance.
Foster had previously stated her intention to ensure more than half of the money committed under the RHI will not be paid out.