Arlene Foster says botched energy scheme was 'shocking failure and I have duty to deal with it'
Arlene Foster has come out fighting after pressure to quit as First Minister over her role in the growing controversy over a botched £400m 'green scheme'.
Writing for the Belfast Telegraph, the DUP leader admitted the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scheme had been a "shocking failure with serious shortcomings in the design, management and delivery".
But a defiant Mrs Foster insisted she would not step down as she announced that every RHI installation will be inspected to end abuse of the scheme. She also said Stormont is writing to all applicants for permission to publish their identity in a bid to boost public confidence after some were linked to the DUP.
The scheme - set up when Mrs Foster was Enterprise Minister - "was a good idea, but was very poorly implemented".
The RHI was designed to assist businesses shift over to eco-friendly heating systems.
But the tariff system used was critically flawed and had no cap or payment tiers, meaning businesses earned more money for burning their biomass boilers for longer.
It could cost Northern Ireland more than £400m in the long term.
Yesterday, it emerged that RHI grants were even used - completely legitimately - to heat a Charles Hurst Ferrari showroom.
Mrs Foster wrote: "It is a matter of deep regret to me that the goals of this scheme were not achieved. The outcome has been one of shocking failure with serious shortcomings in the design, management and delivery.
"These have significant potential pressures to our public finances going into the future, but also have damaged public confidence in the stewardship of public money.
"This is wholly unacceptable."
Returning to her Stormont desk yesterday after a week-long trade mission to China, Mrs Foster said she was sorry that concerns raised by a whistleblower who approached her "were not dealt with as they should have been when raised with officials in the Department".
But she did not directly apologise to the woman who raised concerns.
"Without the benefit of hindsight, I did what Ministers are supposed to do in such circumstances and passed the matter on to officials to investigate, establish the details and to address," she wrote.
"Had any proposals for action been relayed to me, or had I known of the whistleblower's dissatisfaction with replies she received from officials, then I would have taken immediate action."
However, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said that "Mrs Foster remains in denial" and interviews she gave yesterday "were all about blaming everyone but herself".
"The fact remains she presided over a series of policy choices which have created a £400m debt that is her legacy to the people of Northern Ireland."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he was now calling for Stormont's spending watchdog, the Public Account Committee (PAC), to convene an urgent meeting. "It seems that everyone was to blame except Arlene. She needs to come before the PAC and give a full account of her actions," he said.
"Another week cannot pass by with an absence of answers - public faith and trust in our politics simply can't afford it.
"The DUP and, in particular Sinn Fein, must now face up to the fact that Arlene Foster's credibility is draining away by the hour."
Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy said there were still questions that needed to be answered, "particularly in relation to the whistleblower and who in the department decided her concerns did not need to be taken up".
"I do think she (the whistleblower) is owed an apology," he said.
TUV leader Jim Allister said: "Given the public dismay over the handing of this scheme it is now very much in the public interest that all beneficiaries are identified.
"The public money paid to individual local farmers and lawyers is published every year, so there is no sustainable basis upon which this RHI information is being withheld.
"Political embarrassment is not an adequate reason. Has the DUP got something to hide?"
Alliance MLA Stephen Farry said: "Questions persist as to what role she had in the original design of the scheme. Even more crucially, once she knew there was a problem, indeed a potentially massive problem identified by the whistleblower, why she didn't persistently pursue her officials for updates.
"Why did she not understand the implications and therefore risks of what had been provided to her.
"There is a failure to provide leadership, and even an absence of simple curiosity."
the amount the Renewable Heating Incentive scheme could cost Northern Ireland in the long-term