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SF hints at pulling plug if Foster doesn't step aside for RHI probe

By David Young, PA

Sinn Fein has warned a collapse of the power-sharing institutions at Stormont is an option if First Minister Arlene Foster refuses to stand down to allow a probe into her handling of a botched green energy scheme.

The DUP accused its Executive partners of creating "instability and uncertainty".

Meanwhile, the son of former First Minister and DUP leader Ian Paisley - Rev Kyle Paisley - took to Twitter to add his voice to the controversy.

He tweeted: "Northern Ireland was given a golden opportunity, after decades of trouble, to govern itself. The RHI scandal has only served to undermine democracy and has only invited opprobrium.

"Incorrigible pride, that can't accept just criticism, has greatly exacerbated things. It's two fingers up in the face of reason, and a full fist of rebellious ingratitude in the face of Providence."

Mr Paisley (48), a Free Presbyterian minister in England, has been highly critical of the DUP since his father was ousted, using the internet to regularly attack senior party figures.

Mrs Foster has steadfastly rejected calls to step aside amid the cash for ash crisis that has engulfed Stormont.

She faced down a motion of no confidence during a day of drama on Monday, that included a mass walkout by Assembly Members. But while the Christmas break is set to take some political focus off the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) furore, Sinn Fein has made clear the issue must be dealt with in the new year.

The RHI has landed Stormont with an overspend bill of an estimated £400m over 20 years.

It 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" - getting free heat and making a profit as they did it.

Mrs Foster was the minister in charge of the scheme at its inception. Now First Minister, she has the party strength in the Assembly to defeat any bid to censure her.

However, the Executive cannot survive without both the DUP and Sinn Fein - so if Sinn Fein walks away the institutions would fall, with an election likely to follow six weeks later.

While members of the republican party have stressed their desire to reach a resolution, they have also warned that a walkout would be considered if Mrs Foster did not accede to their request to step down, without prejudice, while a judge-led probe is undertaken.

When asked if Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness would withdraw if Mrs Foster remained at her desk in January, party colleague John O'Dowd said: "All options are on the table."

The MLA told BBC Radio Ulster: "The loss of public confidence in the political institutions may require that event to happen - that's the reality, that's the depth of the political crisis we are in."

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said: "This issue is not going away. The DUP should use the time over the Christmas period wisely and do the right thing."

His party will table a motion in the Assembly next month calling for a public inquiry, steps to mitigate the overspend, and for Mrs Foster to step down temporarily while the investigation takes place.

In response, a DUP spokeswoman said: "The DUP are focused on working for the people of Northern Ireland. This includes working on proposals which will significantly reduce the financial burden of the RHI scheme. We believe that this is what the public want to see, rather than instability and uncertainty."

DUP Economy Minister Simon Hamilton and Sinn Fein Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir are working together on plans to claw back some of the money committed.

But the UUP questioned why it had not already been produced, given the length of time the Executive had known about the dire financial implications.

"The plan, whether it is Mrs Foster's, Mr Hamilton's or Mr Ó Muilleoir's, would need to be thoroughly robust and legally enforceable," said UUP economy spokesman Steve Aiken.

"It is certainly long overdue."

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