Northern Ireland Secretary calls for defence of power-sharing as prospect of election looms

Elections will be called tomorrow evening unless Sinn Féin and the DUP can reach a last minute compromise over the RHI scandal

Northern Ireland Secretary calls for defence of power-sharing as prospect of election looms

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire departs BBC Broadcasting House in London, 15-Jan-2017. Image: Jonathan Brady PA Wire/PA Images

The Northern Secretary has said he is not considering any alternative to the current system of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

In an interview with the BBC this morning, James Brokenshire said the North is clearly moving towards an election and warned it is extremely important that the power-sharing institutions at Stormont are maintained.

Under power-sharing law, he must call an election tomorrow unless Sinn Féin and the DUP can reach a last minute compromise.

The two parties have until 5pm tomorrow to bridge their divide over the so-called “cash for ash” controversy.

Mr Brokenshire said he is concerned an election will only lead to greater political division:

“My responsibility is to see that we are working with each of the parties to ensure that we are not looking at greater division and my concern is that an election campaign will be divisive; will actually lead to greater distance between the parties at the end of that,” he said.

Cash for Ash

The Cash for Ash scandal revolves around the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scheme which was designed to encourage businesses to replace older heating sources with eco-friendly alternatives.

Errors in the scheme meant that the subsidies exceeded the cost price of the fuel - with businesses paid around £1.60 for every £1 of fuel purchased through the scheme.

As a result of the errors, the more fuel users burned, the more money they could claim - leaving the scheme drastically oversubscribed.

The scheme was introduced under the watch of former First Minister Arlene Foster while she was enterprise Minister.

Northern Ireland’s former Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness resigned his position in protest at Mrs Foster’s refusal to stand down while an enquiry is conducted into the scandal.

Elections will be triggered unless a compromise can be reached by tomorrow evening.

Damage limitation

Stormont’s Economy Minister, Simon Hamilton is set to bring forward proposals tomorrow which will attempt to limit the economic damage caused by the scandal - which estimates suggest could end up costing the taxpayer nearly £500m over a 20-year period.

Mr Hamilton’s plan would reduce tariffs paid to around 1,800 people who became involved in the scheme before November 2015.

Officials from Stormont’s Department of Finance have reportedly been assessing the plan over the weekend - however it would need to be approved through a vote in the assembly.

The plan could also face legal challenges from those who are benefitting from the scheme.