Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster's U-turn over RHI public inquiry 'is too little, too late'

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster yesterday agreed to a public inquiry into the 'cash for ash' scandal - but her critics said the DUP's change of heart came far too late, and accused her of running scared of the electorate.

The DUP leader said that she was willing to enter talks with Sinn Fein in order to avoid an election.

But republicans claimed that Mrs Foster was engaged in "an act of desperation" as Northern Ireland prepared to go to the polls - and if she had been serious about compromise she would have stepped aside last month, as Martin McGuinness had suggested.

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire will hold emergency talks with the political parties today. He said that the crisis gripping Stormont was grave and that the clock was ticking on an Assembly election.

If Sinn Fein doesn't nominate an MLA to replace Mr McGuinness as Deputy First Minister within five days - which the party has pledged it won't do - Mr Brokenshire will call an election.

Addressing the House of Commons yesterday, Mr Brokenshire urged the parties to do everything possible to reach agreement on the way forward.

"If there is no resolution, then an election is inevitable despite the widely held view that this election may deepen divisions and threaten the continuity of the devolved institutions," he said. Prime Minister Theresa May discussed the Stormont crisis with the Taoiseach Enda Kenny in a telephone call yesterday.

Addressing a Press conference at DUP headquarters in Belfast yesterday, Mrs Foster said she regretted that a period of direct rule and "a very brutal election" awaited Northern Ireland. She claimed she had been "disgracefully maligned in a most vicious manner" over controversy surrounding the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, which is set to cost the taxpayer almost £500m.

The DUP leader said she would support the setting up of an investigation into RHI under the 2005 Inquiries Act - which her critics have long been demanding. "I am determined that the public will get the facts in an independent and impartial way free from party political demands and bias," she said.

"I want to see an investigation commenced quickly so that it will be independently demonstrated that I did nothing wrong and that my integrity is vindicated. This is vitally important from a political perspective but also fundamental for me on a personal basis."

Mrs Foster added: "The DUP has not given up or walked away. We want truth, transparency and cost control even though others would rather play high stakes politics with Northern Ireland's stability."

TUV leader Jim Allister accused Mrs Foster of "electioneering, pure and simple". He said: "Both the DUP and their partners Sinn Fein resisted calls for a public inquiry. Only now, in the face of an election, has Mrs Foster performed this U-turn.

"Consider the facts. On December 18, when asked by The News Letter if the DUP would support a public inquiry, a DUP spokesperson responded by dodging the question and saying they wanted 'an independent investigation'. On December 19 Edwin Poots was emphatic on the issue in the Assembly saying: 'Get the message in relation to the reviews of this: there will not be a public inquiry'. And just last week DUP Belfast councillors voted against a public inquiry."

However, hours before Mr McGuinness's resignation on Monday, Mrs Foster told the Belfast Telegraph she could accept a public inquiry. Mr Allister claimed it was because the DUP was in a state of panic as it finally realised the depth of public anger, but he said the electorate would not be fooled and would "have their say at the ballot box".

Sinn Fein Health Minister Michelle O'Neill said that the crisis of confidence in the institutions "has gone way beyond the RHI scandal". She said: "If the DUP were serious about addressing the political crisis, then Arlene Foster would have stepped aside a month ago as Martin McGuinness suggested privately to her."

Ms O'Neill said her party wanted to make it clear that "the status quo is not an option". She added: "We will not be renominating a Deputy First Minister before the election."

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