Arlene Foster survives vote of no confidence after mass opposition walkout

Members of the Assembly staged a walkout before the First Minister's speech

Arlene Foster survives vote of no confidence after mass opposition walkout

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster speaking to the Press Association at her office in Stormont Castle, Belfast | Image: Niall Carson PA Wire/PA Images

Northern Ireland's First Minister has survived a vote of no confidence - but only after opposition parties walked out of the Assembly before she made a statement.

Critics say Arlene Foster should stand aside while an independent investigation into a controversial green energy scheme is carried out.

Despite having majority support, the no confidence motion fell because it didn't have the support of most unionist politicians.

Under Stormont rules, the motion doesn't pass because it needed support from both nationalist and unionist members - even though 39 out of 75 members supported it. Sinn Féin abstained.

Assembly members from opposition parties earlier said Mrs Foster had no authority to give the statement on the scheme, which could cost the taxpayer there stg£400m (€477m), because it was not backed by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

Mr McGuinness says he will not back the statement of the joint leader of the power-sharing executive because her proposal for an investigation into the scheme she introduced as Enterprise Minister does not go far enough.

The devolved assembly at Stormont had been recalled from Christmas recess over what opposition parties have described as "the biggest public finance scandal since devolution".

But her statement was delayed by around 30 minutes by a walkout after Mr McGuinness made clear he did not back her statement and her plans for an inquiry into the green energy scheme did not go far enough.

He has called for her to stand aside.

Reporter David Blevins is at Stormont and says this crisis could see the assembly collapse.

Mrs Foster was forced to make her statement only to members of her own Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) telling them that the lack of cost controls on the scheme, which became known as cash for ash, was her "biggest political regret".

She said that she had no idea of the overspend on the scheme.

Mrs Foster had faced down opponents, dismissing the vote as a "political stunt" with "no value".

She said earlier: "It can't compel me to do anything and it has only been brought about to try and add to the hyperbole that has come forward from the opposition parties.

"Well I have news for them. I am not resigning.

"I have a job to do and I intend to get on with that job because the mark of a politician is not what he or she does in good times. It's what he or she does when there are challenges in front."

The Renewable Heat Incentive, launched by Mrs Foster when she was enterprise minister, offered subsidies to businesses switching to greener fuel.

When some were found to be heating empty warehouses, it emerged a lack of cost controls meant the more they burned, the more they earned from the public purse.

For every stg£1 (€1.19) they spent, participants received stg£1.60 (€1.90) in subsidies, resulting in the scheme overspending by an estimated stg£400m (€477m).

Sinn Féin want Mrs Foster to stand aside as first minister while the scandal is properly investigated.

Mr McGuinness said: "It is my firm belief the only way to establish the truth of what has occurred and to begin to restore public faith in the institutions is for an independent, time-framed and robust investigation to take place.

"The First Minister should stand aside to allow this. There is also an urgent need to minimise the cost of the scheme to the public purse."