Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster: I want an investigation into RHI and will work to right what went wrong

By Arlene Foster

I wanted to take an opportunity to set out in detail what I have been doing since the Assembly last met, to restore confidence in devolution and to eliminate any further cost to the Northern Ireland budget.

This process is made more difficult by the current political atmosphere, with some more interested in creating new problems rather than looking for actual solutions.

The attempt to overturn the outcome of last May's election by excluding me from office for six months, supported by the Ulster Unionist Party, SDLP and Alliance, without so much as an investigation, never mind a finding against me, was a distraction from solving the problems.

Last week I indicated that work had been undertaken to devise a plan which, if implemented, would mean no further cost to the Northern Ireland budget after this year.

When these proposals are shared in detail with Executive colleagues and the Economy Assembly Committee later this week, I believe it will be clear that they provide a sound basis for moving forward.

However, even if we are able to restore the RHI to what had originally been intended and keep the costs to the levels that Westminster had allocated, there is still a need to get to the bottom of what went wrong and how we can learn for the future.

That is why, as early as the Executive meeting on December 14, I indicated that I favoured an investigation.

The head of the Civil Service provided draft terms of reference on December 23 which I was happy to accept as the basis for going forward.

Sinn Fein subsequently published their proposals last week, which, with the exception of the demand that I step aside, I believe, provide the basis for an investigation.

I should also say that, while I do not believe that it is the best way to proceed, in order to make progress I could have lived with an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, as proposed by some of the opposition parties.

It would therefore appear that we have agreement to commence an independent investigation, save for the demand that I stand aside.

When you think about it, it is a curious position for Sinn Fein to adopt.

They demand an independent inquiry free from any political interference, but they then make the holding of it conditional on my stepping aside.

It is odd that they would provide the person they are seeking to investigate a veto into the holding of the investigation.

One can only assume that they believe that I will want this investigation to report as quickly as possible because I believe that it will clear my name, which in turn, suggests they must also believe that will be the case.

If they really believed that any investigation would suggest wrongdoing on my part, they would hardly have made such an unreasonable demand as that I should stand aside before allowing it to proceed.

All of this makes it look as though it is a purely political demand and not one that serves any genuine purpose.

It is hard to see what practical purpose would be served by my stepping aside while the investigatory panel does its initial work before it produces a preliminary report.

Natural justice would suggest that stepping aside or standing down would come after an adverse finding and not before the process had even commenced.

This was a point that was well made by the Justice Minister, Claire Sugden, in her interviews last week.

Indeed, at this point there is not even evidence of any wrongdoing on my part which would justify a decision to step aside while an investigation is carried out.

I thought Laurence Robertson, chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster, put it best when he asked if an inquiry were held into UK immigration levels over the last six years would Theresa May (as then Home Secretary) have to step down as Prime Minister while it took place?

Some, even accepting all that I have said about the lack of any case against me, cite the example of my predecessor Peter Robinson as precedent for stepping aside while an investigation takes place. At no time did Peter step aside to enable an investigation to be carried out.

His circumstances were very different. At that time the deputy First Minister had asked for an opinion on whether he had breached the Ministerial Code, which was clearly appropriate in a jointly operated department. Peter had also asked for an opinion to be sought from Senior Crown counsel based on what had already been broadcast or published.

Peter stood aside to receive a legal opinion, not to allow an investigation.

By contrast, Peter remained in office for almost the entirety of the investigation by the Commissioner for Standards which eventually cleared him on November 28, 2014.

Of course, if at any time the Commissioner who was carrying out the report had indicated that his enquiries were being hindered, impeded or tainted by Peter's remaining in office, he would have stepped aside.

This seems to me to be the appropriate precedent.

It has also been a feature of much of the reporting on this issue that I have not apologised for any role that I played in the RHI scheme going wrong.

This is not the case.

As I said in the Assembly on December 19: "While it may have been lost amidst the media hype, I am on record as saying that I entirely accept that I am accountable to the Assembly for the actions of the department during my tenure as minister.

"I am sorry that the initial scheme did not contain cost control measures and that there were fundamental flaws in its design. This is the deepest political regret of my time in the House. As minister, I accept responsibility for the work of the department during my time at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI)."

Above all else I am sorry that at a time of so many other challenges facing Northern Ireland - the need to agree our budget, the need to focus on reform in health and education, and the need to focus on the discussions regarding the UK exit from the EU and its impact on Northern Ireland - we are caught in a circular political argument which does nothing to serve the interests of all our people.

For my part, I am determined to do all I can to help put right what went wrong, to find out through an investigation why things went wrong and to seek to restore the credibility of Stormont in the eyes of the public. I want to see an investigation commenced so that it will be independently demonstrated that I did nothing wrong and that my integrity is vindicated.

Last May, people gave us a mandate and despite all of the challenges I remain dedicated to representing all the people of Northern Ireland.

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