Northern Ireland’s First Minister has accused Sinn Féin of attempting to be “judge, jury and executioner” by insisting she stand aside ahead of an investigation into the “cash for ash” scandal.
Sinn Féin this morning outlined their proposed terms of reference for an independent investigation into the botched renewable heat scheme that could end up costing Stormont almost £500m.
Michelle O'Neill, Sinn Féin MLA for mid-Ulster said if the investigation is unable to compel witnesses and subpoena documents related to the scheme it “is not going to be worth the paper it is written on."
"Arlene Foster needs to stand aside to allow the issue of public confidence to be dealt with,” she said. “We need to have a full transparent independent investigation."
"For us, this is clearly an issue of public confidence. We have to deal with that and we will continue to deal with that. If Arlene Foster wants to do the right thing, the right thing to do is to stand aside."
Cash for Ash
The scandal revolves around the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scheme which was designed to encourage businesses to replace older heating sources with more eco-friendly alternatives.
Errors in the legislation 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 RHI incentive was developed during Arlene Foster’s time as the North’s economy minister; however the DUP leader - who has since become Stormont’s First Minister - has refused to stand down and insisted she has done nothing wrong.
“My opponents want to be judge, jury and executioner on these issues,” said Ms Foster in a statement today. “For our part we support the establishment of an independent investigation.”
She said the terms of reference published by Sinn Féin “provide a basis for taking an investigation forward,” however she insisted she would not be standing aside.
“It is clear there are many in the political class who do not believe in due process or natural justice,” she said. “They just want me to go regardless of the fact that there is not a scintilla of evidence of wrongdoing against me.”
“I don't roll over to my political opponents.”
The crisis took on greater significance for the Northern Assembly earlier this month when former DUP minister Jonathan Bell gave an interview to the BBC in which he claimed Ms Foster had ordered him to keep the scheme open despite warnings from the UK treasury regarding the potential loss to the taxpayer.
He also claimed there had been attempts to remove Ms Foster’s name from documents related to the scheme.
Mr Bell was suspended from the DUP following the interview.
Relations between Sinn Féin and the DUP reached new depths yesterday after ‘clear the air’ talks collapsed.
Finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir came out of the meeting accusing the DUP of proposing a “sticking plaster” solution to the RHI crisis rather than a long-term resolution.
Senior members of Sinn Féin have warned the party may yet use its power to collapse the Northern Executive if Ms Foster reuses to stand down on a temporary basis.
The collapse would leave the send the North back to the polls less than a year after the last elections.