Political news

Arlene Foster survives vote of no confidence over RHI scandal

19 December, 2016 10:32

A VOTE of no confidence in First Minister Arlene Foster has been defeated in the assembly.

Of the 75 members who voted, 39 approved the motion; 5 unionists and 12 nationalists, as well as 12 other members.

The motion failed to win the cross-community backing it needed to pass with the DUP using their numbers in the chamber to ensure the call for Mrs Foster to step aside would not succeed.

The vote was held after an SDLP motion following revelations about the botched Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) and the first minister's alleged role in a £400 million overspend.

 

 

Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd told the chamber the motion put forward by the SDLP was "fatally flawed and premature". Sinn Féin abstained from taking part with Carál Ní Chuilín accusing the party of letting the DUP "off the hook".

"Sinn Féin tabled a comprehensive amendment to get to the truth of the RHI scandal and to call on the First Minister to step aside during that process. This amendment was blocked by the DUP speaker. 

"We will now bring forward that amendment as a motion to the Assembly at the first opportunity in January. 

"The SDLP's motion was always going to fail and let the DUP off the hook. It did not deal with the key issues around the RHI scandal. 

"The SDLP voted to keep the RHI scheme open even after it became clear that it was flawed, that it was costing the public purse hundreds of millions of pounds and was potentially corrupt.

"The real test for the SDLP is whether they will support our motion which calls on Arlene Foster to stand aside and the establishment of an independent investigation which is robust and time-limited and led by a judicial figure."

Earlier today, Ms Foster finished her speech to the assembly on the RHI scheme with tears in her eyes and her voice cracking.

In unprecedented scenes, the DUP leader addressed row upon row of empty benches in Parliament Buildings, with only party faithful remaining in the chamber in the seats behind her.

In an unusual display of emotion from the first minister, she made it clear that she had no intention of listening to calls from Sinn Fein that she step aside while an investigation into the energy scheme is carried out.

“The record shows that I have worked hard to keep Northern Ireland moving forward – and I will continue to do so as first minister.

“And that is why, Mr Speaker, rather than whipping up a media storm, I have been actually dealing with the problem, working along with my ministerial colleague Simon Hamilton, and with the finance ninister on a practical solution.

“Because, Mr Speaker, that’s what responsible politicians do. That’s what government is about."

Ms Foster said the RHI scandal was the “deepest political regret of my time in this house”.

The bitter row which saw assembly members walk out of the chamber unfolded after Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness withdrew his approval for Mrs Foster to appear to explain her role in the error-ridden scheme that has left the Northern Ireland taxpayer facing an overspend bill of an estimated £400 million.

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

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

The first minister faced a vote of no confidence in the assembly this afternoon.

Arlene Foster speaking to the Irish News in October about the RHI scheme:

 

Ms Foster was speaking after proceedings were suspended for half an hour as opposition parties walked out of the Chamber after the Speaker would not accept a point of order.

Speaker Robin Newton had rejected a ‘softer’ Sinn Fein amendment as “inadmissible”.

Parties objected to Mrs Foster being given permission to make a ministerial statement, arguing that it did not have the authority of the Executive Office.

Sinn Féin politician Carál Ní Chuilín said if the statement was allowed to go ahead then it would be “Challenging the intrgeity of the executive office”

Mr Newton said he had discharged his responsibility in recalling assembly, adding that the original request to recall the assembly was from both the first and deputy first ministers.

He said he had written to the Executive Office requesting a statement from Mr McGuinness or another minister on his behalf.

As Ms Foster rose to speak, many opposition MLAs left the chamber in protest.

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 and counter claims last week on whether the individual raised concerns directly to Mrs Foster, or if she only outlined them after Mrs Foster passed her on to meet with her 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 had asserted she should have done more.

However, another email has since emerged, that was sent directly to Mrs Foster in 2013, that did raise specific concerns about the scheme.

Addressing the issue in the chamber, Mrs Foster said her former economy department owed the whistleblower an apology.

"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," she said.

"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."

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

 

 
 
 
 
With republicans keen to avoid flak for failing to back the SDLP no confidence motion at the assembly, Sinn Féin had tabled the extensive amendment which effectively trumped its rival's bid to exclude the first minister from office. The SDLP has signalled that its MLAs are likely to support the amendment, which can be blocked by a DUP petition of concern.
 
It called for Ms Foster to leave office for at least four weeks while an "independent, time-framed, robust and transparent investigation" produces a preliminary report into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal.
 
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness reiterated that Arlene Foster would be making the statement in a “personal capacity” and called for an independent investigation.
 
Last night he urged the DUP leader to stand aside, saying her planned statement to the assembly on the botched green energy scheme did not have his approval.

 

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19 December, 2016 10:32 Political news