Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster: Sinn Fein proposals for RHI investigation a basis to move forward but I will not be stepping aside

'There is not a scintilla of evidence of wrongdoing against me. I don't roll over to my political opponents'

Arlene Foster has said Sinn Fein's proposals for how an investigation into the botched Renewable Heating Incentive should be conducted provide a basis to move forward but reiterated that she will not be stepping aside as First Minister.

Earlier when the DUP leader was asked if she would accept the SF proposals, she responded "no," to the BBC during a school visit.

However later on Friday the First Minister said in a statement: "We support the establishment of an independent investigation. However, with the exception of the issue of stepping aside, we believe that the proposals provided to us by Sinn Fein on Thursday and published by them today provide a basis for taking an investigation forward.

"Officials have raised a number of technical issues in relation to the proposals, however there do not appear to us to be any insuperable obstacles to agreement being reached.

"Other parties have suggested that rather than the Attorney General appointing a judicial figure that this appointment function be undertaken by the Lord Chief Justice. We would be equally comfortable with this proposal."

It was originally envisaged that the Treasury would foot the bill for the RHI scheme, but the costs spiralled well beyond London's financial commitment. The total RHI spend in Northern Ireland is estimated to be more than £1 billion over the next 20 years.

The Treasury is set to cover £660 million of that, with Stormont landed with the remaining £490 million.

Mrs Foster said there is "not scintilla of evidence of wrongdoing against me".

"It is clear there are many in the political class who do not believe in due process or natural justice. They just want me to go regardless of the fact that there is not a scintilla of evidence of wrongdoing against me.  I don't roll over to my political opponents.

"I believe in getting to the truth. I believe in due process for everyone and that everyone is equal before the law and equally subject to the law. That has always been the cornerstone of who I am and will be so despite the hysteria.

"Sadly and very regrettably the current political situation has diverted attention from the many significant issues before us. I remain focused on the stability of Northern Ireland despite the present situation.  I am focused on finding solutions and as I always have been I am focused on building the future of this country."

Sinn Fein published its plan for an investigation which would have required the First Minister to step aside for four weeks to allow for a preliminary report into the scandal.

Michelle O'Neill, chief whip Caral Ni Chuilin and MLA Gerry Kelly presented the Sinn Fein plan to the media on Friday morning. They said the inquiry should be fronted by a judicial figure and witnesses should be compelled to attend.

There can be no ministerial influence in the investigation, they said.

And a full-blown public inquiry was not the route to go down as any investigation had to be "time-bound" and "cost effective," they said.

Martin McGuinness, they added, was working at the heart of the issue to break the deadlock, despite his recent health issues.

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Some of the sessions of the inquiry, the politicians said, could be held in public but Arlene Foster would have to step aside as First Minister for four weeks until a preliminary report was published with the full report coming in three months.

Under the proposals, the attorney general would appoint a judge who would then go on to appoint an expert panel.

"The public must be satisfied any investigation would be transparent and robust," Michelle O'Neill added.

She stressed that it was vital witnesses were made to attend hearings.

More: Timeline: How Renewable Heat Incentive unfolded 

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