Northern Ireland

Assembly to debate suspending Arlene Foster for six months over RHI scandal

First Minister Arlene Foster and Strangford MLA Jonathan Bell have given contrasting versions of events in relation to a February meeting about the Renewable Heating Incentive
First Minister Arlene Foster and Strangford MLA Jonathan Bell have given contrasting versions of events in relation to a February meeting about the Renewable Heating Incentive First Minister Arlene Foster and Strangford MLA Jonathan Bell have given contrasting versions of events in relation to a February meeting about the Renewable Heating Incentive

Assembly members are to debate excluding First Minister Arlene Foster for six months after at SDLP petition attended the 30 signatures needed to bring forward the motion to the assembly.

The move was supported by members of the Ulster Unionist Party, Alliance Party, Green Party, People Before Profit and Traditional Unionist Voice, the SDLP said.

An SDLP statement said: "The Speaker has now confirmed to SDLP chief whip Alex Attwood MLA that he will summon members to a meeting of the Assembly on Monday 19th December to debate the Ministerial Exclusion Motion."

With the motion set to be tabled at Monday's session, MLAs will vote on whether the first minister should be excluded from office.

The assembly had already been recalled for Monday to allow Arlene Foster to make a statement on the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI).

The SDLP move comes after Sinn Fein had earlier called for an urgent independent investigation into the role played by their DUP partners in government in the botched green energy scheme.

Sinn Fein assembly member Conor Murphy said a public inquiry should be one of the options considered to find out what went wrong with the eco-friendly initiative that has left Stormont facing an estimated £400 million overspend.

The intervention by the DUP's coalition partner in the Stormont Executive came after DUP leader and first minister Arlene Foster said sorry for not implementing cost controls in the ill-fated RHI.

The "cash for ash" controversy escalated on Thursday when former DUP economy minister Jonathan Bell broke ranks to level a series of explosive claims against Mrs Foster and party advisers.

Mr Murphy said: "We need to get to the bottom of this and hold those responsible for this mess to account as a matter of urgency in order to restore public confidence."

Jonathan Bell's claims

In an extraordinary TV interview that laid bare a bitter rift in a party known for its internal discipline, a tearful Mr Bell claimed a "highly agitated and angry" Mrs Foster demanded he kept the RHI open for an extra fortnight, in the face of a Treasury warning, during a stormy showdown at Stormont when he was still economy minister earlier this year.

Mr Bell, who has demanded a judge-led public inquiry, also accused DUP special advisers of blocking his efforts to clamp down on the excessively lucrative green heating subsidy late last year.

Mrs Foster was also interviewed on BBC Northern Ireland's Nolan Show Investigation and rejected his assertions in robust terms.

It made a remarkable televised bout of acrimonious claim and counter claim involving the leader of Northern Ireland's largest party and one of her erstwhile ministerial colleagues.

Arlene Foster's claims

The first minister alleged that Mr Bell was the one who acted aggressively in the disputed meeting. The named special advisers also denied his claims of undue influence.

Mrs Foster portrayed Mr Bell's interview as a "distraction" to mask his own failings in regard to the scheme, insisting that it was him who wanted to delay the shut-down of the massively overspent endeavour.

The DUP leader continues to face down calls to resign, or at least temporarily stand down pending investigation into her involvement in the RHI.

The scheme was developed during her time as economy minister. On Thursday night she apologised for not implementing more controls on the scheme at its inception, but claimed the Executive could take action that would potentially halve the overspend.

"Of course I'm sorry I didn't put in cost controls," she said.

Mrs Foster will face a motion of no confidence in the assembly on Monday when she makes a statement on the furore in a specially recalled sitting.

The DUP's electoral strength means the motion tabled by the SDLP will have no practical effect but it nevertheless signifies the strength of feeling on the opposition benches, where there have already been vocal calls for a public inquiry.

Renewable Heat Incentive

The error-ridden RHI was designed to incentivise businesses to replace old heat sources with new eco-friendly alternatives, such as wood pellet boilers. But it ended up paying applicants more than the purchase price of the fuel.

There was no cap on the subsidy payments, so essentially the more heat you generated, the more public money you were paid. For every £1 of fuel bought by businesses, they got paid around £1.60 through the scheme.

There are claims a farmer in Northern Ireland is set to pocket around £1 million in the next 20 years for heating an empty shed.

The assembly's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is probing the affair but opposition parties have claimed its inquiry does not have the necessary degree of independence given a number of its members are DUP assembly members.

Mr Murphy, himself a former Stormont minister, said: "There needs to be an independent investigation into this in which all information, including internal departmental papers, records, and email trails should be fully disclosed by all of those involved.

"We also need to know who benefited from this flawed scheme and who made the decisions surrounding its design, operation, and failure to monitor and slowest to close the scheme.

"In addition there needs to be urgent action to reduce the impact of this debacle on our public finances and on our public services.

"It is not acceptable that our health, education and other vital frontline services are suffering as a result of a scandal for which no-one has yet been held to account."

Mr Bell, who succeeded Mrs Foster as economy minister, claimed there had also been an attempt to remove references to her in documents related to the doomed scheme.

The DUP has rejected that allegation as a "hamfisted diversionary tactic" to mask his own "crucial and catastrophic" failure to take earlier action to clamp down on the overspend.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long called on Mrs Foster to step aside to enable an independent inquiry to establish the facts.

"We need to know why the scheme was kept open after the financial implications were known and who benefited, including those accepted into the scheme and contractors supplying equipment or fuel," she said.

"At the very least, the First Minister should step aside for the duration of that investigation and all paperwork and correspondence relating to RHI should be released publicly as we have previously stated."

Ms Foster speaks to the Irish News in October about the RHI scheme: