Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster faces down biggest threat yet to her position as no confidence vote falls on a day of drama

First Minister promises she'll fix RHI fiasco after surviving 'constitutional coup d'etat', but DUP leader faces fresh Sinn Fein motion in January

By Suzanne Breen

First Minister Arlene Foster has survived the biggest threat to her political career after a vote of no confidence failed at Stormont.

DUP leader Mrs Foster defied calls by Sinn Fein and the Opposition parties for her to stand aside pending the outcome of an independent investigation into her role in the cash for ash scandal, which could cost the taxpayer £400m.

Mrs Foster described the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) affair as her "deepest political regret", but insisted she was going nowhere.

"I remain as committed today as I did on the day I was elected as First Minister to fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith," she said.

Following a day of political drama, an SDLP no-confidence motion in her was supported by every party except the DUP and Sinn Fein, which abstained.

Despite 39 MLAs voting in favour of the motion, with 36 against, it was defeated because DUP opposition meant that it did not have the required majority of both unionist and nationalist members of the Assembly.

While Sinn Fein is set to bring forward its own motion on the scandal in mid-January, its position in Stormont yesterday represented a major climbdown from its fighting talk on Sunday.

While the political crisis is far from over, the DUP was last night breathing a sigh of relief that the immediate threat to the party and the Stormont institutions has waned.

It is set to hold talks with Sinn Fein on the way forward in the coming days.

Ahead of the motion of no confidence, all non-DUP MLAs walked out of the chamber in a bitter row over Mrs Foster's right to make a statement to the Assembly without the required approval of Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

In extraordinary scenes, which saw Speaker Robin Newton face a barrage of critical questions, Mrs Foster made her statement to rows of empty benches with only her party colleagues for company. Afterwards, Mr McGuinness branded the episode a "shambles" and insisted that as he and Mrs Foster's office is a joint one, her statement should not have been delivered.

The Deputy First Minister said the RHI furore had left the power-sharing institutions in a "very difficult situation", but he also pledged to focus on getting them back on track.

In the afternoon, a majority of the absent MLAs returned to the Assembly for the no-confidence debate.

Mrs Foster said: "This is nothing short of an attempt at a constitutional coup d'etat.

"I have to say that it is a coup d'etat more worthy of a Carry On film. This motion turns what has been a very serious issue into low farce. It is a kamikaze motion with no prospect of success, and the signatories to it know that."

Denouncing the Opposition parties as "irrelevant and impotent", she said that she had no intention of standing aside and added "I am here. I will stay here to fulfil the trust that has been placed in me and to make sure that the mess is cleared up."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described RHI as "the biggest public finance scandal ever to hit these institutions". He said: "So far, digging into this scandal has uncovered staggering incompetence - digging deeper has the potential to uncover corruption."

Urging Mrs Foster to do the "dignified and decent" thing and stand down, he continued: "We can't go on like this.

"The longer that the First Minister clings on, then the more her credibility will fade.

"And let me assure the First Minister, Christmas will not save her."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said the RHI scandal had made Northern Ireland "collectively a laughing stock" and that Mrs Foster lacked any plan to tackle the crisis.

Mr Nesbitt also claimed that serious questions had been raised over her leadership.

"Either her fingers were all over these policies or she was asleep at the wheel. Either way she has to stand aside," he added.

TUV leader Jim Allister said that even though it was the pantomime season, events at Stormont yesterday were "beyond farce". He also alleged that the DUP was not disclosing all it knew on the scandal.

"There are DUP members on these benches who could tell a lot about this scheme, who could tell about their party donors who have benefited," Mr Allister claimed.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said that Mrs Foster could have shown leadership by voluntarily standing aside: "The actions of the First Minister have further damaged the standing of the political institutions in the eyes of the public."

"I would ask her to reflect on what is more important - her political career or confidence of the public in the political structures," Mrs Long added.

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