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Arlene Foster vows not to quit as First Minister as she devises strategy to bring cost of RHI energy scheme to zero

By Laurence White

The RHI scheme will not cost the Northern Ireland taxpayer a penny, First Minister Arlene Foster has vowed.

In an interview with this newspaper, Mrs Foster said detailed work has been carried out over the Christmas period to devise ways of cutting the cost of the scheme, which currently has a projected overspend of £490m over the next 20 years.

She said: "A lot has been made about the potential overspend. I want to make sure that doesn't happen. We plan to bring that potential cost down to zero. There will be no overspend."

Economy Minister Simon Hamilton will bring a paper to the Executive in the next few days setting out interim measures to end any abuse of the scheme and to cap the costs in the longer term.

In a wide-ranging discussion the First Minister said:

  • She will not be standing aside to allow an inquiry into RHI to take place
  • Revealed that the head of the Civil Service, in consultation with the Attorney General, has drawn up terms of reference for an independent inquiry into the RHI debacle. These have been sent to Sinn Fein but no response has yet been forthcoming
  • The permanent secretary of the Department of the Economy has written to all those participating in the scheme asking for consent to name them publicly. They have to respond by January 10.

She also spoke about the personal affect that the row over RHI has had on her and her family, and of the support that she has received from the public and her party.

The First Minister admitted that the latest Stormont crisis has affected the public perception of politicians in the devolved administration.

She said: "I am trying to keep my head and draw up a plan to deal with RHI while everyone else is whirling around in total hysteria. That does not speak well of the political classes if that is how we deal with a crisis".

She had strong words for her political opponents.

Sinn Fein, she said, had gone into meltdown prior to her decision to address the Assembly on December 19.

"On Wednesday, December 14 we had agreed a way forward and I would agree to a time-based independent inquiry, but by that Friday, Sinn Fein had gone into meltdown.

"It was like the row over welfare reform where they agreed to a course of action and then resiled from it.

"Now they want me to stand aside before any inquiry.

"There was never a chance for me to stand aside because I have nothing to hide". She added: "I want an inquiry to go ahead and I want to get cost controls in place. I have been working with the Minister for the Economy to get a plan in place to deal with the projected overspend. That is what people want us to deal with at the minute".

The First Minister accused the other parties of using the RHI crisis to further their own political aims. "For Sinn Fein this is all about more than RHI. 2016 was a very good year for us in the DUP. We made good ministerial appointments and are in a good position as regards unionism. I believe Sinn Fein is not in a good position. They seem to be in inner turmoil. The Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is not well and there seems to be some jockeying for position internally.

"They think this is an opportunity to weaken unionism, but speaking to ordinary unionists across the province they tell me we are the party that speaks for them."

She also believes that the criticism levelled at her and her party by Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt (below) is not going down well in the country.

"They see him leading the challenge against the leader of unionism but if you know anything about unionists outside of Belfast you would know that doesn't go down well. He doesn't understand that".

While her tone is much more subdued than that displayed on television or in the Assembly before Christmas, her message remains steadfast. "I have been through a lot in my life and I am not about to be a weak unionist leader when something like this comes about... I am certainly not".

Mrs Foster denies she was taking a risk going on television immediately after former Economy Minister Jonathan Bell made his claims about the RHI scheme on the Stephen Nolan show without knowing what those claims were.

"I have absolutely nothing to hide. I had no difficulty going on to speak to Stephen Nolan without knowing what information he had because I had done nothing wrong. What I didn't want to happen was Jonathan Bell going on and giving his side without me putting the facts before the public".

She added: "The Public Accounts Committee had been looking at the scheme for some time before the BBC Spotlight programme on it.

"After so-called revelations on that programme people became engaged in shock and awe revelations which often misrepresented the facts."

She said the RHI crisis has been based on distortion, lies and spin and is particularly critical of the role of social media in heightening tensions.

"It has become something of a feeding frenzy."

She defended her letter to banks here urging them to support people wanting to buy into the scheme.

"There was an underspend on the scheme at that time and people were approaching the banks for finance to purchase boilers. The banks were cautious. A number of businesses asked me to write to the banks and explain to them how the scheme would work.

"Even then we were working on the assumption that there would be a return of 12.5% on investments and I got officials to draw up a letter which I then signed. We were not aware of the flaws in the scheme at that time."

First Minister's statement in full on her plans to deal with RHI scheme

Over the Christmas holidays I have been working on a plan to reduce the costs of the RHI scheme to the Northern Ireland Executive's budget.

Detailed work by the Department of the Economy has gone into analysing the costs as well as the legal and administrative issues involved in amending the scheme.

"The RHI had initially been devised on the basis that it would be funded from Westminster, but due to the errors inherent in the RHI as developed for Northern Ireland there is a danger that the Executive would have to cover around £490m over the next 20 years. And we also need to avoid risking the £660m over 20 years that should be available from the UK Government for this purpose.

"However, the proposals I have been working on are designed to eliminate any future cost to the Northern Ireland budget while allowing the scheme to function as initially envisaged.

"Further detailed work is required on the long term solution to this issue, but in the next few days the Economy Minister Simon Hamilton plans to bring an urgent paper to the Executive setting out an interim measure to end the incentive to abuse the scheme.

"If agreed, these could involve recalling the Assembly next week to seek approval for action to put this into effect, so that the immediate problem of excessive payments is stopped while we prepare a proper long term permanent solution.

"We will consult on the proposals to ensure the permanent arrangements involve no further call on the Northern Ireland budget."

Foster on personal cost ...

"Things have been said that should not have been said. I am human. I am not a robot. There has been a lot of talk in the Assembly about mental health issues and the need to deal with them. Not very many have been thinking about my mental health in recent weeks, but I am a strong person and I am very encouraged by the support I have received from across the unionist people and some nationalists.

"People need to go out and talk to ordinary people. A lot of them are confused and want clarity. That is what I want, too.

"I worry about the impact on my 83-year-old mother, Georgina. She and my late father were very proud of what I have achieved. However, my mother realises that these sort of attacks on me can happen.

"Northern Ireland politics are quite misogynistic and some of the commentary on this issue has been quite misogynistic. No political leader will go through life without someone attacking them, but this criticism has been quite vicious.

"Comments on social media have been horrific. People say things on social media, anonymously, that they would never say to your face.

"I worry about the impact on my children. I have a 16-year-old daughter who is quite across social media. I tell my children to look away from comments about me or to ignore them, but that is difficult to do. I signed up for politics, but my family did not."

on her supporters ...

On her desk at Stormont Castle the First Minister has a transparent folder full of cards and letters sent in by supporters. She has also received, she says, many emails and messages of support sent through party colleagues.

"That is something positive I can take out of all this. My party is fully behind me and that is very encouraging."

One message from a blind RAF veteran simply underlined key lines in Kipling's poem If:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,....

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools

"That was a lovely thing to receive," she adds. "It is great when people take the time to send you a letter or a card. That takes effort instead of just sending an email."

One person she did not receive a card from is former minister Jonathan Bell.

She reveals that she has not spoken to him since he went public with his allegations and does not intend to.

"He is subject to disciplinary measures within the party at the moment".

She adds: "I would like to know when he started working with the BBC. Was it before the Spotlight programme. It was all very cloak and dagger".

Foster on the parties ...

Sinn Fein: "Declan Kearney of Sinn Fein is going on about this crisis reaching a tipping point. No one has died, no one has been killed.

"This is part of an organisation that tried to kill my father (John Kelly, a police officer, was shot in an IRA attack in 1979 but survived) and blew me up when I was 17 (she was on a school bus which was targeted by the IRA because the driver was in the UDR). They believe I am going to roll over by stepping aside. I don't think so.

"Given the respective backgrounds of myself and Martin McGuinness, we have a purely professional working relationship. In the past year since the Fresh Start Agreement we have managed to work through a number of the issues. Everything is now being thrown to the wind when a difficulty presented itself instead of us working through it.

Ulster Unionists: "They wanted me removed from office before any investigation took place. That is ludicrous. They thought it was a chance to weaken me and weaken my party by taking out the leader and therefore benefit themselves.

"If there was an election then only 90 members would be returned to the new Assembly. Maybe that is why Mike Nesbitt is now saying that an election would solve nothing. We might lose members in an election but other parties would also lose members.

All opponents: "I will not be distracted by political opponents whoever they are. People gave me a mandate to lead and that is what I intend to do."

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