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Video: Watch justice minister say Foster handled RHI scandal ‘appallingly'

Justice Minister Claire Sugden was critical of both the DUP and Sinn Féin over their approach to the RHI scandal. Picture by Mal McCann

JUSTICE minister Claire Sugden has accused her government partners of putting party political interests ahead of the public interest.

Speaking for the first time since the assembly last sat before Christmas, the independent unionist MLA described First Minister Arlene Foster's handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal as "appalling".

But she said Sinn Féin was also wrong to demand that the DUP leader step aside because accusations levelled about her oversight of the botched green energy scheme had yet to be substantiated.

Ms Sudgen said the fall-out from the RHI debacle had the "potential to devastate Northern Ireland" and she fully supported a "robust investigation" to establish what went wrong and how it could be remedied.

However, the justice minister insisted she could not initiate a public inquiry because it was a cross-cutting matter that would be blocked at executive level by the DUP and Sinn Féin.

"It's not the case that I'm not prepared to launch a public inquiry, it's just that I am constrained in doing that," she said.

Ms Sugden said the RHI crisis was preventing her fulfilling her role as justice minister because, among other things, it was holding up the Stormont budget.

She said she had considered many options over the Christmas period, including tendering her resignation, but for now she was staying put.

"I thought if I can't do my job what's the point in continuing?" she said.

"But right now it's too much of a risk to take because there is still an opportunity there."

Ms Sudgen said relations with the rest of the executive had been good until the RHI scandal flared up in December.

She was critical of Arlene Foster, claiming that along with her party she had failed to acknowledge public anger.

"I think the first minister has handled this whole fiasco quite appallingly," she said.

"I don't expect her to come out and say that this is her fault; I don't expect her to step aside and I don't expect her to resign, but what I do expect is leadership from our first minister because people are angry about this – it is a big issue."

The justice minister said a "little bit of contrition" would be welcome along with an acknowledgement of public anger.

"I think perhaps she needs to put a focus on the people she represents – and I mean all the people of Northern Ireland, because she is first minister – rather than satisfying herself and her party."

Ms Sugden also said she did not agree with Sinn Féin's call for Mrs Foster to step aside and suggested the terms of reference published by the party on Friday "wasn't any different from what they'd been saying before Christmas".

"My argument is that a lot of this issue played out within the media and I'd be keen to substantiate any of the accusations that have been levelled at the first minister before saying she needs to step aside," she said.

"Also interestingly within their terms of reference they talk about a four-week preliminary inquiry, but surely the fair option is to conduct that inquiry and if after four weeks it's seen that Arlene Foster has played a significant role in this fiasco, then we ask her to step aside?"

The justice minister said the "worst thing that could happen" was the institutions collapsing.

"I don't see the purpose in an election because looking at the statistics it's fairly obvious the DUP and Sinn Féin would be returned as the two biggest parties – so what would it all be for?

"If anything it will sweep this issue under the carpet again because they will be in a more powerful position post-election."

Ms Sugden added that she had kept in close contact with both parties but ultimately it was for them to sort it out.

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