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SDLP leader Colum Eastwood warns Sinn Féin's Declan Kearney of legal action over RHI remarks

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has warned Declan Kearney he could face legal action over his remarks. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has told Sinn Fein's Declan Kearney he must withdraw allegations of criminal negligence against his party - or face legal action.

Speaking on BBC's Good Morning Ulster radio programme this morning, Mr Keaney said there had been "potential criminal or political negligence" by the SDLP when they voted last year to keep the RHI scheme open.

The South Antrim MLA said: "Sinn Fein became aware of the issues around RHI when the deputy First Minister was first informed by the head of the civil service around the beginning of 2016.

"And at that stage at February 2 OFMdFM was provided with a briefing and asked for urgent action to close down the scheme.

"That was formally agreed by urgent procedure on February 5.

"Now the scheme was closed down on February 29 in a context where both the SDLP and UUP voted to keep that scheme open.

"Sinn Fein voted to close it down. Maybe we should have a public inquiry and maybe there would be a great deal of public interest as to whether there has been potential criminal or political negligence on the part of the SDLP and UUP."

Replying to Mr Kearney on the same programme, SDLP MLA Claire Hanna said: "We voted to keep the amended scheme which included tiering not the fill-your-boots scheme that [Sinn Fein, DUP] presided over."

"We voted for that in good faith."

This afternoon, Mr Eastwood hit back at Mr Kearney's comments while speaking on BBC's Talkback programme.

"Some people can say things like criminal negligence but if they don't withdraw them, they will find themselves facing very difficult issues in the coming days," he said.

He added: "I am absolutely threatening legal action.

"People can throw around words like criminal negligence - particularly some of the sources it is coming from -   they should stand over that or they should withdraw it or they will find themselves receiving legal letters.

"People can throw out all sorts of distraction politics but when you talk to Naomi, Mike and myself we have been consistent from the very beginning.

"All we want is the truth and accountability."

The RHI scheme, funded by the state, was supposed to offer a proportion of the cost businesses had to pay to run eco-friendly boilers.

However, the subsidy tariffs were set too high and, without a cap, it is set to cost the public an estimated £490 million.

This enabled those who applied for the scheme to “burn to earn” – getting free heat and making a profit as they did so.

Claims of widespread abuse include a farmer allegedly set to pocket around £1 million in the next two decades for heating an empty shed.

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