RHI scandal: Arlene Foster faces no-confidence vote

Media captionMLAs walked out as Mrs Foster began her statement on Monday

NI First Minister Arlene Foster is facing a vote of no confidence over her involvement in a botched heating scheme that could cost the taxpayer £400m.

Earlier, MLAs walked out of the Assembly chamber in protest against a statement by the DUP leader into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

She said that not introducing crucial cost-control measures in the scheme was her “deepest political regret”.

Other parties objected to her being given permission to make the statement.

The Office of First and Deputy First Minister at the Northern Ireland Assembly is a joint role and the deputy first minister, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, had withdrawn his approval for Mrs Foster to speak on the issue.

The RHI was set up by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) under the stewardship of Mrs Foster in 2012 to encourage businesses and other non-domestic users to move from using fossil fuels to renewable heating systems.

But flaws in setting the scheme’s subsidy rate left it open to abuse as claimants could earn more cash the more fuel they burned.

The scheme was finally halted early this year, by which time its overall cost had reached £1.18bn.

About £20m a year for the next two decades could be taken from the Northern Ireland budget to cover the overspend.

‘Political gallows’

Mrs Foster decried her “trial by television” in a fiery response to the no-confidence motion tabled by the SDLP. which is backed by the UUP, Alliance Party, Green Party, TUV and People Before Profit.

She railed against being rushed to the “political gallows” and said there was a premature and inappropriate race to judge her.

“They can’t gang up and kick out the elected leaders of unionism,” she told the assembly of her political rivals.

“I am here and I will be staying here… I have acted with the highest level of integrity.”

Three hours have been set aside to allow MLAs to debate the no-confidence motion, and for Mrs Foster to respond.

Analysis – BBC News NI political correspondent Enda McClafferty

When it works, it shows politics in Northern Ireland is moving in the right direction but when it goes wrong it reopens old wounds and leaves the institutions hanging by a thread.

Joint ministerial authority means Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness have equal power and cannot work in isolation. They have no choice.

That’s why Arlene Foster’s decision to make a statement without the support of her partner in office today has plunged Stormont into a fresh crisis.

Joint office is the bond which holds Stormont together, it now appears to be melting fast in this heating scandal.

Earlier, Opposition politicians had been highly critical of Stormont Speaker Robin Newton for allowing Mrs Foster’s statement to proceed.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Mr Newton’s decision came perilously close to ripping up the joint nature of the Executive Office.

But after hearing objections from a number of MLAs, Mrs Foster finally told the depleted chamber no-one in government nor industry had picked up on crucial failings in relation to the overgenerous tariff offered by the RHI scheme.

Media captionArlene Foster apologised for not controlling costs of the RHI scheme

She said she had not imposed the scheme on the people of Northern Ireland, adding that while she was setting out a plan to deal with the fall out, others were trying to use the situation for political gain.

Sinn Féin wanted Mrs Foster to step aside during an investigation by an independent judicial figure, but the party’s proposed amendment to the SDLP motion was ruled inadmissible.

The DUP supports an investigation, but rejected calls for the first minister to step down.

Image copyright

Image caption

Sinn Féin wants Arlene Foster to step aside while an independent investigation is held into the scandal

No credibility?

In an interview with the BBC’s Stephen Nolan on Thursday, Mr Bell, a former enterprise minister, broke ranks with his DUP colleagues and made a number of sensational claims about how the controversial scheme was handled.

Image caption

Mr Hamilton said the allegations made by Mr Bell were serious and warranted investigation

He said DUP advisers had delayed his plans to close down the scheme.

The party denies this, and Arlene Foster has criticised Mr Bell’s handling of the matter.

Media captionRHI scandal: Bell claims DUP advisers ‘interfered in closure’

Mr Bell had said a whistleblower civil servant had told him references to Mrs Foster were removed from a document as the ending of the scheme was being considered.

Economy Minister Simon Hamilton released documents on Sunday which he said questioned Mr Bell’s version of events, although he conceded serious allegations made by Mr Bell warranted investigation.

Mr Bell was suspended from the DUP over the weekend for speaking to the press without permission.

The Treasury, which was due to cover the cost of the RHI scheme, said the executive would have to find the money for the enormous overspend.

But Mrs Foster said that the executive believes at least half of the scheme’s projected £400m cost to the Stormont budget can still be saved.

RHI scandal: Arlene Foster faces no-confidence vote}

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