New gulf emerges between DUP and SF after clashes over heat scheme
Attempts by the DUP and Sinn Fein to present a united front are lying in tatters after a bitter day of rancour and mutual finger-pointing at Stormont.
After almost six months of improving relations between the two Executive parties, the fallout from the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) threatened to turn into a crisis that could trigger fresh elections.
Sinn Fein warned that the existence of the Executive Office could be thrown into doubt after Arlene Foster went ahead with a Stormont statement on RHI despite Marin McGuinness withdrawing his permission for his colleague to do so.
"I think we are in a very difficult situation," Mr McGuinness said. "We are dealing with an enormous financial scandal, and as a result of today's development in the Assembly we are dealing with a total shambles."
Sinn Fein tabled a motion calling for an independent inquiry and again urged First Minister Foster to step aside pending the outcome of any investigation.
The motion will be debated when the Assembly resumes in January.
Having been brought back from their Christmas and New Year recess, MLAs spent the first hour-and-a-half yesterday protesting over whether the Assembly should have been recalled in the first place.
The argument about Mrs Foster's speech hinged on the nature of the system of leadership. Under Stormont rules, the Executive Office is held by the First and Deputy First Ministers, who have equal status, meaning decisions must be agreed by both.
Former Sinn Fein minister Caral Ni Chuilin said allowing Mrs Foster's statement to go ahead undermined the integrity of the Executive Office.
But DUP members accused their power-sharing partners of playing politics.
A day of high political drama began with Speaker Robin Newton refusing to accept a number of points of order, which lead to a half-hour adjournment.
When the session resumed, the DUP was left isolated after all other parties walked out of the chamber in protest at Mr Newton's decision.
The Ulster Unionists, SDLP, Alliance, TUV and other MLAs, who are challenging the Speaker's decision, shouted "shame" as they stood up together.
Outside, they said they were not prepared to allow Mrs Foster to make a "party political broadcast".
TUV leader Jim Allister said the events were akin to something from a pantomime.
In a direct challenge to Mr Newton (below), the SDLP's Alex Attwood asked where he got his authority from, while People Before Profit MLA Eamonn McCann called for the holding of fresh Assembly elections.
Insisting the discussion had been "a disaster for the integrity and reputation of these institutions", Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt suggested a second adjournment, only to be overruled by Mr Newton. Afterwards, DUP chairman Lord Morrow said: "After days of feigned anger, they would not, or could not, find a single question to ask about an issue of such public importance."
Mrs Foster then found herself answering questions from her own party members in a bizarre Assembly session where only the DUP was present.
The First Minister said: "I am sorry that the initial scheme did not contain cost-control measures and that there were fundamental flaws in its design. This is the deepest political regret of my time in this house.
"The crucial mistake in the scheme was that the tariff for the most commonly used boilers - small to medium biomass - was set at a level higher than the market price of the relevant fuel, which is mainly wood pellets. In essence, that created an incentive to continue to burn fuel over and above the levels required."
Insisting she would not be resigning - with further details on how the envisaged £400m expenditure can be circumvented expected later this week - the DUP leader went on: "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."
After the one-party meeting, the Assembly was again adjourned for almost another hour. In the afternoon, Mrs Foster staged her own walkout after she directly clashed with Mr Nesbitt, who shouted out, "What's the plan?"
The DUP leader diverted from scripted remarks to retort: "If you had been here this morning, you would have heard it."
Mr Nesbitt replied that her remarks amounted to all talk and no action.
DUP members then shouted back that the other parties "ran away" and lost their opportunity to question Mrs Foster.
However, a motion to exclude Mrs Foster foundered - as expected - because her party has sufficient numbers to defeat it.
Confidence motions require not just an overall majority, but a majority of both unionists and nationalists, and with 38 members the DUP has more than 50% of the total unionists.
The SDLP's motion of no-confidence was supported by a majority of voting MLAs (39-36). However, Sinn Fein, which remained largely absent from the Assembly chamber all day, did not back it.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "Never have I seen our public more engaged and more angry about a single issue. Ours is a community united in anger."
The last few months had witnessed "a damaging pattern" to politics here, he went on, including "the cloud hanging over the Nama deal, the inaction on Brexit, the structure of the Social Investment Fund and appeasement of a UDA boss".
Mrs Foster said: "For almost two weeks, I have listened on an almost daily basis to lies presented as facts, the truth distorted out of all recognition and a public narrative created and relentlessly pursued which bears no relationship to reality."
She branded the exclusion motion as a "kamikaze" attempt at a "constitutional coup d'etat" but added: "I have to say that it's a coup d'etat more worthy of a Carry On film."
Ms Ni Chuilin responded: "The SDLP's motion was always going to fail and let the DUP off the hook.
"It did not deal with the key issues around the RHI scandal. The test for the SDLP is whether they will support our motion."
But Alliance leader Naomi Long said: "This is not about any individual. It is about these institutions and it is about the anger, weariness and disgust that the public feel towards them."