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Clashes on PAC as First Minister Arlene Foster and her nemesis Jonathan Bell, asked to show for grilling

By Noel McAdam

DUP and SDLP Assembly Members clashed as Stormont's financial watchdog formally asked First Minister Arlene Foster to face questioning over the 'cash for ash' controversy.

Behind closed doors, the Public Accounts Committee also decided to invite Jonathan Bell, who replaced Mrs Foster as minister of the department that oversaw the controversial scheme, which could cost taxpayers up to £400m over the next 20 years.

A third senior DUP figure, former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, will also be asked to attend, along with the SDLP's Patsy McGlone, who was chairman of the committee that oversaw the former Department of Trade, Enterprise and Investment.

The invitations break the convention that ministers are not required to attend PAC hearings, which usually involve civil servants, other officials and experts.

The PAC demanded further documentation, particularly during the period late last year when there was a dramatic spike in the numbers of applications to the scheme.

But when yesterday's meeting went into public session there were clashes between the DUP's Trevor Clarke and the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan, which prompted committee chair Robin Swann of the Ulster Unionists to intervene.

Mr Clarke claimed it was obvious that politics was being played along with the attempted "victimisation" of Mrs Foster, who had already indicated her willingness to appear.

"It is unfortunate that some Members have leaked papers. Maybe we don't have to look too far," he said.

Mr McCrossan hit back: "I am not politicking. When it comes to the waste of £400m of public money I think it is ridiculous that I would be accused of politicking - £400m - when we can't pay teachers a 1% pay rise."

Mr Clarke responded: "The First Minister has already said if she is invited she will come. Maybe if he (Mr McCrossan) took his job seriously and attended meetings of this committee..."

Then, after Mr Swann intervened, Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew said some of the papers the committee had requested had not been forthcoming.

"There is a lot of public disquiet about all of this," she said.

"I am frustrated that things we have asked for have not been made available.

"Some of the other papers were heavily redacted.

"I am very keen that we get the names as quickly as possible so we can see who has benefited, particularly in the spike period, I think will be very interesting to see."

Mr McCrossan said: "It is absolutely vital that a list of names is provided to this committee and it is far too important to be kept behind closed doors. I want to see it in the public domain.

"Given the revelations that continue to come out, it appears likely that eventually an independent investigation will be the only way forward."

Sinn Fein's Oliver McMullan said: "It is important we drill down into this whole matter regardless of anyone's title. We may not have finished yet. We may have more people to bring. We have to let the public know what is going on here."

The DUP's Carla Lockhart stressed: "We are not, as a PAC, going to be pushed into a trial by media.

"We have to separate ourselves from the politics of it. I want to commend the First Minister for saying she is willing to come forward, because it is not the normal procedure."

Mr Swann said: "While it is not the convention to invite ministers to come before the committee and give evidence, the majority of the committee feels that in this case it would be both appropriate and desirable.

"My committee has been investigating this scheme since September and we have been shocked, not just at the apparent failure of the department to control the way the scheme was designed, implemented and monitored, but at the enormous cost to the public purse.

"We are determined to get to the bottom of how this scheme went so badly wrong.

"And we believe that the minister who was in charge when it was agreed may have valuable evidence to give to the committee."

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