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Arlene Foster changes tone but still insists she is staying put at Stormont

Arlene Foster appeared to strike a conciliatory tone in response to Sinn Fein proposals for an inquiry. Picture by Niall Carson, Press Association

ARLENE Foster appeared to sound a conciliatory note in response to Sinn Féin proposals for an RHI probe - but the First Minister remained adamant that she will not be stepping aside.  

The DUP leader said she broadly agreed with the basis for an investigation outlined by Sinn Féin.

However, the demand that she vacate her Stormont office pending a preliminary report was once again rebuffed.

Although her statement on Friday by no means signalled an end to the stand-off between Stormont's big two, it does suggest that a deal could be possible.

Sinn Féin's proposals to investigate the Renewable Heat Incentive debacle would see a judge from outside the north nominated by Attorney General John Larkin.

He or she would lead a panel to investigate the actions of ministers, special advisers, civil servants and others involved in the botched scheme's design, while special legislation would give it the power to compel witnesses and subpoena documents.

Sinn Féin wants the panel to produce a preliminary report within four weeks of commencing its work, with a final report within three months.

In a surprise response, Mrs Foster said the proposals provided a basis for moving forward, although a sticking point remains the demand for her to temporarily step down.

"It is clear there are many in the political class who do not believe in due process or natural justice," said the DUP leader.

"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."

She reiterated her party's support for the establishment of an independent investigation.

On Sinn Fein's terms of reference, she said: "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."

While there appeared to be a change of atmosphere around Stormont last night, Sinn Féin's Carál Ní Chuilín insisted the DUP had yet to endorse its proposals.

"We have yet to be notified that our full terms of reference are agreed," the North Belfast MLA said.

"Sinn Féin has also made it clear that Arlene Foster needs to stand aside pending a preliminary report from the independent investigation which must have the powers to compel witnesses and evidence."

Ms Ní Chuilín also repeated her party's demand that all RHI applications are investigated and efforts made to halt payments through the lucrative scheme.

"Any investigation must look at who may have benefitted from this scheme as a result of conflicts of interest," she said.

Earlier on Friday, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said Sinn Féin and the DUP had "run out of road" and he was getting ready for an election should the political institutions collapse.

He dismissed Sinn Féin's proposals as a "red herring" and insisted Mrs Foster must step down.

"In terms of restoring public confidence in the integrity of these institutions, Arlene Foster should lead honourably and the only honourable thing to do is resign," he said.

"It's very difficult to see how we work our way around this now because we have the two parties of government in a stand-off and I don't see what the solution is."

Mr Nesbitt said he felt there was a "real prospect" that the electorate would vote for change.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood claimed Sinn Féin was "going to extreme efforts to avoid a public inquiry".

"Sinn Féin appear determined to cook up an inquiry which might be acceptable to the DUP – we are only interested in an inquiry which is acceptable to the public," he said.

"This scandal started when Arlene Foster was a minister - it can only end when Arlene Foster steps aside, the full truth is uncovered and the public purse is protected."

Alliance leader Naomi Long labelled the Sinn Féin proposals "political fudge".

She claimed the terms of reference were flawed and questioned why a full public inquiry could not be established under the Inquiries Act.

"It is also a nonsense to say an inquiry would take longer than an investigation," she said.

"The evidence will be what the evidence will be, and an investigation would take the same length of time. The only reason an investigation would be quicker is if it was less thorough."

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin said on Friday night it would be lodging a motion of no confidence in the DUP's assembly speaker Robin Newton.

Calling on him to immediately resign his post, South Antrim MLA Declan Kearney said revelations in Friday's Irish News that he lobbied for financial support for Charter NI from a Policing Board fund "confirm that his position is untenable".

He also claimed Mr Newton's performance during a chaotic assembly session on the RHI scandal before Christmas "totally compromised the neutrality of that office".

Mr Newton defended his actions in allowing a statement by Mrs Foster without approval from Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, saying he was left in a difficult position by ministers.

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