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RHI scandal: Arlene Foster 'victim of witch hunt and is owed an apology', claims Nigel Dodds

Danny Kinahan: This is a national scandal and Westminster should understand its full extent

DUP MP Nigel Dodds said Arlene Foster's opponents are on a "witch-hunt" in an attempt to blame her for the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

The RHI aimed to cut the cost of green energy to encourage people to move off fossil fuels but ended up landing ministers with a massive overspend.

It incentivised the installation of costly eco-friendly heating systems by paying a tariff per kilowatt of heat burned over a 20-year period.

However, unlike in the rest of the UK, in Northern Ireland no cap or payment tier system was placed on the money that could be claimed in proportion to the size of boiler and the hours it was operated.

Mrs Foster was later told about serious flaws in the initiative by a whistleblower, although the concerns were ignored by Deti officials.

On Wednesday she told BBC Spotlight NI: "In 2013, a 'whistleblower' made allegations to me about the operation of the RHI scheme.

"I passed these concerns on to departmental officials to investigate.

"During the PAC (Public Account Committee) evidence session on 9th November, the Permanent Secretary indicated that as Minister my actions in response to the 'whistleblower' were "entirely appropriate".

"It is now obvious that these investigations should have highlighted the failings of the scheme and ameliorative actions should have been taken."

Mr Dodds said attempts to blame Mrs Foster had reached "hysterical levels" and that first minister was now owed an apology.

In response to Mr Dodd's comments Ulster Unionist Economy spokesperson, Steve Aiken MLA, said: "Tonight's pantomime statement from Nigel Dodds MP demonstrates classic DUP distraction and deflection techniques.

"Instead of referring to the lady who came forward as a 'so called' whistleblower, he should be thanking her for doing what she did.

"There is a lot more to come in relation to the RHI scandal and we aren't in possession of all the facts, so no-one can claim that what has been selectively revealed in a copy of a single email puts Arlene Foster in the clear.

"They should release all the correspondence in relation to the RHI scandal. The central issue remains. The only way that Arlene Foster can redeem herself is by demonstrating ministerial accountability. She knows what she has to do."

Vote of no confidence

Earlier on Wednesday SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he will table a motion of no confidence to exclude Arlene Foster as first minister while she continues to face questions about her role in the scheme.

Mr Eastwood said Mrs Foster has lost the confidence of the public and of the Assembly and must now stand aside or face exclusion from office while she faces questions about her conduct.

He called on Sinn Fein members to sign the motion, which requires 30 signatures.

Mr Eastwood said: "The SDLP will table a motion of no confidence to exclude Arlene Foster as first minister while she continues to face these critical questions and until she has accounted for her conduct in relation to the Renewable Heat Incentive fiasco.

"Ms Foster should follow the precedent set by her predecessor and resign to restore confidence in the office of First Minister while these questions hang over her. She has lost all credibility and anything less will further erode faith in our institutions. If the First Minister will not stand aside, then the Assembly must act to remove her from office and fully scrutinise this scandal."

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That resulted in the RHI tariff paid out being higher than the cost of fuel needed to run the boilers - meaning the more businesses burnt, the more they earned.

Thousands signed up to the RHI - a deluge that ultimately forced its closure, but not before Stormont had been left with a huge future bill.

Overall, more than £1 billion of public money will be paid by 2036 to Northern Ireland-based businesses which signed up to the scheme. Around £400 million of that will be paid out by the Stormont Executive.

'This is a national scandal'

Meanwhile Ulster Unionist MP, Danny Kinahan, has said that the British government should not ignore the hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money set to be wasted through the scheme.

Mr Kinahan raised the issue during Cabinet Office questions earlier today.

The South Antrim MP said: "It’s important that the scale of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal is understood in Parliament.

"I took the opportunity today during Cabinet Office questions to raise the point that £400million will be wasted from the Northern Ireland block grant.  This is taxpayers’ money literally going up in smoke.

"I was disappointed to receive the usual response from the Cabinet Office Minister that it was inappropriate to comment on devolved matters.

"While there is an ongoing Northern Ireland Assembly Public Accounts Committee inquiry into this matter, I hope the UK Government will also keep a close eye on proceedings given that following the GB model would not have seen us in this position.

"This is a national scandal and Westminster should understand its full extent."

Special sitting

Stormont's Assembly is to hold a special sitting early next week to discuss the overspending scheme, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister said.

Assembly members will be recalled from the Christmas recess to discuss issues which have left the taxpayer facing what critics claim could be a £400 million bill.

A statement from the ministers said: "We have today asked the Speaker to convene a special sitting of the Assembly early next week to address issues surrounding the RHI.

"This will facilitate a full statement to be made by the First Minister to members on the matters of public concern relating to RHI.

"RHI was discussed by the Executive today and ministers around the table underlined the seriousness of the issues involved and the importance of restoring public confidence.

"It was also emphasised that detailed plans are being finalised to significantly reduce the projected losses in the years ahead."

Arlene Foster has faced intense public scrutiny over her role in the RHI when she was economy minister.

The DUP leader and First Minister rejected calls for her resignation over her handling of the error-ridden scheme that has left Stormont facing an overspend in the next 20 years.

The Assembly's Public Accounts Committee is investigating the RHI furore.

The First Minister, who has been accused of not doing enough to pursue whistleblower allegations that sought to expose flaws in the system, has already indicated a willingness to answer questions on the matter.

Mrs Foster's acknowledgement that one of her former special advisers - Stephen Brimstone - was an RHI applicant, and confirmation from the DUP that the brother of Andrew Crawford, another of her former special advisers, was also on the scheme have led political rivals to assert that the First Minister must have had an intimate knowledge of its workings.

There is no suggestion Mr Brimstone or Mr Crawford's brother were anything other than legitimate claimants.

European Commission said it has no reason to believe RHI breached state aid rules "at this stage, based on available information."

The Belfast Telegraph first reported on Stormont's failure to control the scheme in July.

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