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Key players at Stormont go to ground as pressure over RHI builds

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Picture by Hugh Russell

UNDER fire First Minister Arlene Foster and her Stormont counterpart Martin McGuinness were both unavailable to speak to The Irish News on Tuesday despite the deepening crisis over the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).  

With the festive break officially over and most people returning to work, it was expected that given the continued crisis created by RHI that Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness would make public appearances.

Neither minister has been involved in a public engagement, jointly or individually, since the week before Christmas.

However, requests to respective party press officers to speak to the first minister and deputy first minister were met with silence.

Stormont's Justice Minister Claire Sugden also appears reluctant to engage with the media and is not returning calls from this newspaper.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire is meanwhile keen to stay out of the escalating RHI row.

A Northern Ireland Office spokesman insisted on Tuesday that the botched green energy scheme was a matter for the Stormont executive.

A statement on Monday from Sinn Féin's national chairman Declan Kearney warned that the political process was heading "towards an unprecedented tipping point".

He accused his party's partners in government of "playing fast and loose with the political process" and cautioned that such behaviour meant the Stormont institutions were "unsustainable".

Mr Kearney's remarks have fuelled further speculation that his party may walk away from the executive, triggering fresh assembly elections.

The next key date is January 16 when the assembly returns from its Christmas break, however, pressure is mounting on Stormont's key players to break their silence.

Last night Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill reiterated her party's call for Mrs Foster to step aside while a preliminary probe into the RHI scheme takes place.

The Mid Ulster MLA said her party believed the "quickest and most cost effective" way to address concerns around the scandal was through an independent investigation, rather than a public inquiry.

Ms O'Neill said the probe needed to be "robust, transparent, time-framed and led by a senior judicial figure from outside the jurisdiction".

Notably, in what appears to be a new stipulation for the party, she said the investigation should have the "power to compel witnesses and documents".

"Arlene Foster needs to step aside to allow that to happen and to begin to rebuild confidence in the political institutions," Ms O'Neill said.

"If Arlene Foster has any sense of the outrage and anger in the public then she will step aside."

She called on Stormont's other parties to support its forthcoming motion on the RHI.

SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone highlighted Ms Foster and Ms Sugden's low profile in recent weeks, while criticising Sinn Féin's flip-flopping over a public inquiry.

"As the crisis in confidence in the first minister and the political institutions deepens, Arlene Foster has been AWOL since Christmas, the justice minister seems to have taken a vow of silence and Sinn Féin have confounded even themselves with their doublespeak," he said.

"This is a time to stand strongly and demand the highest standards of accountability – nothing less than a fully empowered public inquiry will do."

Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt said the ten years since the DUP and Sinn Féin agreed to share power has been a "failure."

“What is clear beyond doubt is that this latest scandal proves the DUP and Sinn Féin are incapable of working together," he said.

“What is required now is a collective effort to start the process of restoring public confidence in the integrity of the devolved institutions. That requires leadership, and as our First Minister, Mrs Foster should lead the way by accepting the principle of ministerial responsibility and resigning. We also need a judge-led, time-bound public inquiry under the terms of the 2005 Inquiries Act."

People for Profit's Gerry Carroll said his party wanted an election.

"The executive is unsustainable – the public should now have their say, and be given the opportunity to voice their anger at the incompetence and corruption that has become endemic in the assembly," the West Belfast MLA said.

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said only a full public inquiry would suffice.

"Sinn Fein's bluster on RHI will prove only that without commitment to a full public inquiry," he said.

"Anything less provides a soft landing for its DUP partner, which, I suspect, is Sinn Fein's real intent."

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