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Plans to close RHI scheme 'may be fix to spare Arlene Foster's blushes'

Closing down a botched green energy scheme in Northern Ireland may represent a political fix designed to save the blushes of First Minister Arlene Foster, critics have claimed.

Stormont opposition leader Mike Nesbitt said the idea floated by ministers raised far too many unanswered questions to deserve support without significant detail.

He called for a windfall tax to recoup some of the money pledged to participants in the failed initiative and also demanded the Speaker at Stormont stand down over his handling of an Assembly debate on the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

Mrs Foster has defied calls to step down as a leader of the devolved powersharing administration while the matter is investigated.

The Department for the Economy said it was exploring cost control options to address "unacceptable" levels of potential public overspend on subsidies - an estimated £400 million over 20 years.

Ulster Unionist chief Mr Nesbitt said: "What we need is a fix that is ethical, fair to the many legitimate users of RHI, fair to the taxpayer, and acceptable to Her Majesty's Treasury.

"What we will not support is a political fix, designed primarily to save the blushes of Mrs Foster, by making what she herself calls the RHI 'debacle' go away.

"The idea of closure being floated by the Finance and Economy Ministers raises far too many unanswered questions to warrant support without significant detail."

The Department is understood to be exploring whether it can buy out the contracts of RHI beneficiaries due to receive subsidy payments in the next 20 years - voluntarily or compulsorily.

An official statement said: "All options will need further consideration and expert advice with a view to introduction in 2017.

"Officials are in discussion with legal advisers (from both the departmental solicitor's office and the attorney general's office).

"Options on the way forward will be informed by this advice. The minister plans to bring a proposal to the Assembly, and issue a consultation document, as early as possible in the new year."

Democratic Unionist leader Mrs Foster has rejected calls to step aside amid the "ash for cash" crisis that has engulfed the devolved administration in Belfast.

She faced down a motion of no confidence during a day of drama on Monday that included a mass walkout from the Assembly chamber.

But while the Christmas break is set to take some political focus off the furore, Sinn Fein has made clear the issue must be dealt with in the new year.

The RHI was supposed to offer a proportion of the cost businesses had to pay to run eco-friendly boilers, but it ended up paying significantly more than the price of fuel, enabling applicants to "burn to earn" - generating free heat and making a profit as they did it.

Claims of widespread abuse include a farmer allegedly set to pocket around £1 million in the next two decades for heating an empty shed. Mrs Foster was the minister in charge of the scheme at its inception.

Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir said: "No preferred option has been put before me and there is still much work to be done. Value for money and protecting the public purse will be my criteria in assessing any solution.

"As Finance Minister, I will scrutinise any options brought forward to ensure that it stacks up and that it reduces the huge costs of RHI to a minimum."

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