Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster has said she has ‘nothing to hide' over botched energy scheme

First Minister Arlene Foster speaking todayat her office in Stormont Castle, Belfast where she said she will not resign over a failed renewable heating scheme in Northern Ireland 

ARLENE Foster has said she has "nothing to hide" over her role in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme which could cost taxpayers £400 million..

The DUP leader, who was a minister when a whistleblower raised concerns about the scheme, has resisted calls for her resignation. She said: "I brought forward the policy. It was the implementation that went askew."

Mrs Foster said all beneficiaries of the scheme would be inspected to check recipients "are doing what they should be".

She added she wants to see the publication of a full list of names of those who are availing of the scheme, but their permission must first be sought.

"I want to help in any way - I have no difficulty in answering questions I have nothing to hide", she said.

In an interview with the BBC the first minister also revealed former DUP special adviser Stephen Brimstone, who recently resigned, was a claimant under the scheme.  Mrs Foster stressed that his involvement in the RHI was not a factor in his departure.

Mrs Foster returned to work at Stormont on Monday following her four-day trade visit to China last week.

The Irish News reported on Saturday that the brother of a DUP special adviser who helped Mrs Foster oversee the botched scheme is among those benefiting from it.

Andrew Crawford, from Beragh, Co Tyrone, was Mrs Foster's special adviser at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment when the scheme was introduced.

A DUP spokesman said Mr Crawford never met the whistleblower who raised concerns about the scheme.

"Dr Andrew Crawford was special advisor in the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment during the period 2011 to May 2015," he told the News Letter.

"Dr Crawford did not meet the whistleblower nor has he any record of these issues having been raised with him at that time."

It also emerged that DUP MLA Mervyn Storey is an elder in a Free Presbyterian Church in Ballymoney, Co Antrim, which is set to benefit from the scheme.

Mr Storey told the News Letter he had no involvement in Hebron Free Presbyterian Church's application to the initiative, which had been dealt with by a separate church committee.

The church stands to receive £270,000 over a 20-year-period from the scheme.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Mrs Foster must answer more questions about the issue.

"The First Minister must not be allowed to deal with this scandal simply on her own terms and she must not be allowed to give answers only to the questions she deems relevant," he said.

His party colleague Nichola Mallon said the assembly may be recalled over the scandal.

"This executive fails to take ownership of issues, it fails to take responsibility and there's a serious lack of accountability," she said.

Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy said ministers responsible for operating the scheme, including Mrs Foster, should give information to Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

"Despite three open public evidence sessions with the two permanent secretaries in charge of DETI from the beginning in 2012, until the close of the RHI in 2016, there is still no transparent, comprehensive or satisfactory explanation as to what has gone so badly wrong," he said.

He said there should be "full disclosure" of everyone who benefited from the scheme.

He added: "The ministers responsible for operating the RHI should now make themselves available to the PAC and provide whatever information they possess about this scheme."

Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken said Mrs Foster's position as first minister was "untenable".

"First, she decided she wanted London’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to devolve renewable heat to her," he said.

"Secondly, she made a policy decision not to replicate the successful DECC scheme in Northern Ireland. Thirdly, she supported the fatally flawed RHI scheme which means her legacy to the people of Northern Ireland will be a £400m debt created by literally burning money.

"To claim this is all 'jot and tittle' is simply untenable and so is her position as First Minister."

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