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Belfast City Council backs call for RHI public inquiry

By Cate McCurry

Belfast councillors have backed a motion calling for a public inquiry in the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.

Independent unionist Ruth Patterson put forward the motion during last night's council meeting.

It also called on First Minister Arlene Foster to step aside until such an inquiry was completed.

The motion was carried by 23-12. Eighteen councillors abstained.

The DUP opposed the proposal and Sinn Fein abstained.

It followed criticism of the republican party that it had softened its position on the type of probe it wanted into RHI.

Belfast City Council will now call on Secretary of State James Brokenshire to initiate a full public inquiry into what Ms Patterson described as the "RHI shambles".

"This scheme is a farce, a waste of hundreds of millions - how many hundreds we don't even know yet - of taxpayers' money.

"Why was the RHI scheme constructed in such a woeful manner? And who benefited from such scandalous errors?

"There have been serious allegations from a former DUP minister, Mr Jonathan Bell, of political corruption.

"These allegations need fully tested and investigated."

She further stated that Mrs Foster should "demonstrate some remorse" by stepping aside from her role as First Minister.

After being ordered to wrap up her speech by DUP Belfast Lord Mayor Brian Kingston, Ms Patterson added: "To those in the DUP that have a conscience, going against your party isn't easy.

"They will savage you, and perhaps, like me, you will even be savaged by the electorate, but at least you won't be tortured by your own conscience.

"History will judge you kindly.

"I ask all of my colleagues in this chamber, regardless of party background, vote for what is right.

"Do not vote for your party, vote for the difference between right and wrong, because, frankly, Northern Ireland deserves better."

She wept as she described a terminally ill young girl who is being treated at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

"Whenever I look at us, sitting here squabbling and £400m gone up in smoke, just think what that could have done for the health service in this province.

"It really puts everything into perspective."

Sinn Fein's Jim McVeigh had proposed an amendment in which he called for an investigation by an independent judicial figure. He further backed calls for Mrs Foster to stand aside to allow an "independent, time-framed, robust and transparent investigation".

However, the amendment was defeated.

Mr McVeigh said: "We recognise that we are in the middle of a huge political crisis, that our institutions have been brought into disrepute, some of the most serious allegations of corruption at the highest levels of government, and widespread incompetence of the most serious allegations deserve to be taken very seriously.

"The public want individuals to be held accountable for their actions.

"The public want the First Minister to step aside for a fair investigation to take place.

"It must have the powers to compel witnesses.

"We believe a public statutory inquiry will take too long."

Ulster Unionist Jeffrey Dudgeon also proposed an amendment calling for a "time-bound public inquiry" into the botched energy scheme. He further called for the leader of the DUP to resign from her role. However, his amendment was also voted down.

PUP councillor Billy Hutchinson said a "clear message" had been sent to the Secretary of State following last night's meeting.

"Confidence in politics itself has been shaken. We urgently appeal to the Secretary of State to take the necessary steps to show that good governance can be restored, and that justice will be done," he said.

Meanwhile, Alliance councillor Kate Nicholl proposed a motion in which she called for political parties to be "brought into line with the UK" by revealing names of single donors over £7,500. The motion was passed despite opposition from the DUP and UUP.

"Increasing openness and transparency in politics can only be a good thing, particularly in the current climate. Alliance already voluntarily publishes our large donor information but unfortunately not many other parties follow our example," said councillor Nicholl.

"It was disappointing to see the DUP and UUP voting against this evening's motion, which sought to make politics more publicly accountable, and they will have to answer to the public as to why they did just that."

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