Northern Ireland news

First Minister condemns 'attempted coup' in energy scheme brawl

 Arlene Foster makes her way into Chamber to outline how the RHI scandal unfolded and justify her decision not to step aside as First Minister over the scandal 
David Young

Stormont's First Minister has launched a blistering attack against political rivals and the media as she defended her handling of a botched green energy scheme.

Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster denounced opposition parties as "irrelevant and impotent" as she responded to an Assembly motion of no confidence in her.

"For almost two weeks I have listened on an almost daily basis to lies presented as facts, the truth distorted out of all recognition and a public narrative created and relentlessly pursued which bears no relationship to reality," she said.

All other parties in the Assembly - including the DUP's partner in government, Sinn Fein - have called on her to stand down pending an independent probe into an error-ridden scheme that has landed the Northern Ireland taxpayer an estimated bill of £400 million.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was due to offer a proportion of the cost businesses had to pay to run eco-friendly boilers, but it ended up paying significantly more than the cost of fuel, enabling applicants to "burn to earn" - getting free heat and making a profit as they did it.

Claims of widespread abuse include a farmer allegedly set to pocket around £1 million in the next 20 years for heating an empty shed. Mrs Foster was the minister in charge of the scheme at its inception.

Assured of the party strength to defeat the SDLP motion of no confidence, Mrs Foster branded it a "kamikaze" attempt at a "constitutional coup d'etat".

"I have to say it's a coup d'etat more worthy of a Carry On film," she added.

The DUP leader said she would not run away from her responsibilities.

"I remain as committed today as I did on the day I was elected as First Minister to fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith."

All non-DUP MLAs had earlier walked out of the chamber ahead of a statement by Mrs Foster.

The bitter row unfolded after Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness withdrew his approval for Mrs Foster to appear to explain her role in the RHI.

All statements by Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness's joint office need the support of both sides of the power-sharing executive.

Mr McGuinness's move prompted members from all parties but the DUP to question the validity of Mrs Foster's appearance.

It led to the bizarre situation of Mrs Foster giving a statement to a three-quarters empty chamber and then answering questions tabled by her own members.

The majority of absent MLAs returned later for the motion of no confidence debate. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood tabled the proposal.

"This is biggest public finance scandal ever to hit these institutions," he said.

"As this scandal has unfolded it has suited some to muddy the waters but we must not be distracted.

"So far, digging into this scandal has uncovered staggering incompetence - digging deeper has the potential to uncover corruption."

Mr Eastwood said Mrs Foster must do the "dignified and decent" thing and stand down.

"We can't go on like this. The longer the First Minister clings on the more her credibility will fade," he said. "And let me assure the First Minister, Christmas will not save her."

The "cash for ash" scandal reached fever pitch last week when former DUP economy minister Jonathan Bell broke ranks to level a series of claims against his leader and party advisers.

Jonathan Bell became the minister for the department for enterprise, trade and investment in May 2015, seven months before changes were made to the RHI scheme

In a TV interview, a tearful Mr Bell said God told him to come clean as he claimed a "highly agitated and angry" Mrs Foster demanded he keep the RHI open for an extra fortnight despite its huge losses.

Mrs Foster strongly rejected the claims. Mr Bell was suspended by the party over the weekend.

On Monday, Mr Bell claimed he had an email containing critical information about the scandal. He said he was being prevented from publishing details of the message and called for that ban to be lifted.

Much of the scrutiny on Mrs Foster has focused on how she responded to concerns raised by a whistleblower during her time as economy minister.

There was a flurry of claims last week about whether the individual raised concerns directly to Mrs Foster, or if she only outlined them after Mrs Foster passed her on to meet officials.

The DUP published an email from the whistleblower last week that made no mention of her RHI concerns - the party cited it to demand an apology from those who said she should have done more.

Another email has since emerged, sent directly to Mrs Foster in 2013, that raised specific concerns about the scheme.

During her statement, Mrs Foster said of the whistleblower: "She deserves our high respect and a sincere apology on behalf of my former department, which should not have dismissed her claims with disbelief, but examined them with diligence.

"It is no exaggeration to say that had she been listened to on any of the three occasions when she approached DETI, this crisis would have been avoided."

Regarding what information was passed directly to her, she added: "Unfortunately, it has been difficult to establish the exact facts around contact between this concerned citizen and myself and the department."

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