Northern Ireland

Emotional Arlene Foster thanks those who stood by her over RHI fall-out

DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster speaking yesterday in the assembly chamber
DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster speaking yesterday in the assembly chamber

ARLENE Foster paid emotional tribute yesterday to those who stuck by her in the face of unfounded corruption allegations about Stormont's flawed RHI scheme.

The First Minister and DUP leader's voiced cracked as she reflected on the "dark" times she experienced since the Renewable Heat Incentive controversy brought down power-sharing more than three years ago.

Mrs Foster was addressing the assembly chamber on the findings of the public inquiry into the ill-fated green energy scheme.

The probe identified numerous failings across government but rejected claims that corruption had played a part.

"Thank you to those who, with my family, never stopped believing in me as a person of integrity," she said.

"I will reward their faith by learning the lessons, by fixing the problems, by making Northern Ireland a place the next generation can be proud of."

Mrs Foster, who was criticised in the inquiry for some of her actions as enterprise minister in RHI's development, reiterated her apology for her mistakes.

"But, when I look back, it was the allegations of corruption that were of the utmost concern," she said.

"To allege that someone is corrupt is amongst the most damaging accusations to be levelled against anyone.

"I therefore welcome the clear and categorical finding by Sir Patrick that corruption played no role in the failure of this scheme.

"To those who made such claims they should now publicly accept this finding and as a lesson to everyone on these benches, and the benches opposite, for the future – before questioning anyone's integrity wait for the facts.

"Don't look at the subject as a political rival, look at them as a father, mother, son or daughter who at least deserves to have a fair hearing."

Mrs Foster said her Christian faith had sustained her through the criticism levelled at her over the RHI.

She also thanked friends and family, saying: "The love and support of my friends and colleagues both inside and outside this great party, and my precious family who had to listen to so many people speak of their wife, daughter, sister and mother in such a disparaging way, but who never stopped believing in me as a person of integrity."

RHI encouraged businesses and farmers to switch to eco-friendly boilers by pay a subsidy for the wood pellet fuel, but mistakes meant the subsidy was set higher than the cost of pellets – giving an incentive to 'burn to earn'.

The controversy led to the collapse of Stormont power-sharing after the late Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest at Mrs Foster's handling of the affair in January 2017.

RHI had left the administration facing an overspend bill of hundreds of millions of pounds. Subsequent cost-control steps have prevented this.

Sir Patrick's inquiry criticised Mrs Foster for failing to read key draft legislation and also highlighted "unacceptable behaviour" by several DUP special advisers.

But the probe said it would be wrong to blame specific individuals or groups for the design flaws.

Mrs Foster said the inquiry had shown there was "no good reason to bring these institutions down and keep them down for so many years".

She said there was a need for action to address "structural and systematic failings".

"Colleagues, this is not a day for recrimination," the First Minister added.

"It is a day for learning. I acknowledge my role in damaging public trust but I am determined to play a full part in rebuilding that trust and doing all that I can to ensure a better way of working as we move forward."