Belfast Telegraph

McGuinness urges Arlene Foster for probe into RHI energy scheme fiasco

Empey joins calls for Foster to quit over 'biggest financial scandal since partition'

By Rebecca Black

Arlene Foster no longer enjoys the confidence of the public and should step aside, the Deputy First Minister has said.

Martin McGuinness added his voice to the growing calls for the First Minister to temporarily remove herself from office amid growing fury over a botched green heating subsidy.

The Renewable Heat Incentive controversy - dubbed cash for ash - was yesterday branded the biggest financial scandal in the history of Northern Ireland.

Mr McGuinness said the First Minister and the DUP needed to accept widespread demand for a thorough investigation into the scheme.

"There is no doubt that we are facing a serious growing political crisis in the north as public confidence in the political institutions has been grievously undermined by the RHI debacle and the DUP's failure to deal responsibly and adequately with it," he said.

"In order to address these challenges, the DUP and its leader Arlene Foster need to accept there is an overwhelming desire in the community to deal with this issue and for Arlene Foster to step aside as First Minister pending a preliminary report," he added.

Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey said Mrs Foster must take responsibility for what he branded the "biggest financial scandal since partition in 1921".

The RHI scheme was set up in 2012 when Mrs Foster was Minister for Enterprise.

It offered businesses subsidies to run eco-friendly boilers, but the tariffs were set too high and, unlike the same scheme in Britain, there was no cap set on claims. This allowed applicants to "burn to earn" - getting free heat and making a profit as they did it.

Claims of widespread abuse include a farmer allegedly set to pocket around £1m in the next two decades for heating an empty shed.

The lack of cost controls means the scheme could cost the public purse up to £500m.

It emerged last week that Mrs Foster wrote to all the major banks in Northern Ireland in 2013 encouraging them to lend to people who wanted to get involved with the scheme.

Over the weekend there were reports that consultants had been warning of flaws in the scheme as early as 2013.

Mrs Foster survived a vote of no confidence in the Assembly in December.

But yesterday, the Deputy First Minister said she no longer enjoys the confidence of the community, urging her to step aside to save Stormont.

Mr McGuinness said that there was a need for "real leadership if confidence is to be restored in the political institutions in 2017".

He also lambasted the DUP, claiming they had failed to deal with recent controversy "responsibly and adequately".

Mr McGuinness urged Mrs Foster to step aside pending a preliminary report.

He added: "That would allow for an independent investigation to take place, which is transparent, robust, time-framed and led by an independent judicial figure from outside this jurisdiction appointed by the Attorney General.

"A rigorous process to recoup as much of the money as possible must also be put in place.

"We need to restore public confidence in the credibility of the political institutions, ensuring they deliver for the people."

Lord Empey, meanwhile, called on Mrs Foster to stand aside.

"Given the scale of this disaster and given Mrs Foster's involvement at all stages, I think any objective observer would conclude that she must step down and take responsibility," he said.

"That's how it works in the real world and in all walks of life - ask any premier division football manager.

"There is simply no escape from this fact."

Lord Empey said if the First Minister continues to resist calls to step aside she will drag the crisis out "until she damages herself and the (power-sharing) institutions perhaps beyond repair".

"I hope she reflects on these matters during the recess, takes the necessary action by resigning and allows Stormont to start 2017 with a determination to fix this mess, and go forward to deliver some much-needed effective action to raise living standards and resolve the problems in the health service which are blighting the lives of so many," he added.

Last month former DETI minister Jonathan Bell made a number of shocking claims about how the scheme was handled in an interview with the Stephen Nolan Show.

Mr Bell has not commented on the issue since then, but he has indicated that he is considering taking legal action against Mrs Foster over comments she made in a responding interview on the same show.

After the programme was aired, the SDLP put to the Assembly a no-confidence motion against Mrs Foster as First Minister, but it failed.

Previously Mrs Foster said she would resist her opponents' "fevered quest" to build her "political gallows".

The Northern Ireland Assembly is scheduled to return next Tuesday, January 10.

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