'Cash for ash' scheme could collapse Stormont - Sinn Féin warns
Party's national chair warns future of power-sharing in the balance as calls continue for Foster to step aside and probe to begin
Pressure last night continued to mount on Arlene Foster to stand down as republicans suggested the scandal over a botched energy scheme could collapse Stormont.
Sinn Fein's national chairman Declan Kearney warned that the continuing fallout over the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scheme could see power-sharing crumble.
Writing in republican newspaper An Phoblacht, he said: "Political institutions cease to have value when they do not reflect equality, mutual respect and parity of esteem, and have become detached from the lives of the citizens they are meant to serve.
"Political parties and leaders in the north need to be above scandal and corruption. They should be above reproach, not continuously reproachful towards political opponents. The political process has now been dragged recklessly by the DUP, culminating with the RHI crisis, towards an unprecedented tipping point."
His comments echoed a hard-line assessment from Sinn Fein MEP Matt Carthy, who told a republican commemoration on Sunday that the institutions at Stormont were facing their greatest challenge in a decade.
Opponents, however, claimed that Sinn Fein may have softened its position in order to strike a deal that would see the crisis defused.
A Press release on Mr Kearney's article originally called for a full public inquiry into RHI. But within hours he backtracked to demand a "time-framed, comprehensive, independent investigation - led by an international jurist - to be established".
The party dismissed the change as a mistake, but SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone accused Mr Kearney of "rolling over". He said: "Sinn Fein are in complete disarray on how to respond to the biggest financial scandal in the history of devolution. At a time when the public needs strong leadership, they have met DUP arrogance with equivocation, confusion and weakness."
Mr McGlone said only a judge-led public inquiry would bring out the truth of RHI.
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"The public are wise to the Sinn Fein two-step," he stated.
"They know the difference between a transparent, independent inquiry and an internal probe carried out behind closed doors and vulnerable to interference from interested parties. They know now that Sinn Fein are in Arlene Foster's pocket and they will not tolerate a repeat of Nama or Charter NI, where again Sinn Fein gave the DUP a soft landing."
The botched RHI green energy scheme could cost the taxpayer £490m over 20 years.
Mrs Foster originally approved the scheme in a previous ministerial role in 2011, but has blamed the mishandling of the initiative on officials. She told the Assembly before Christmas that her involvement was the biggest regret of her political career, but refused to step down. Tonight the fallout over RHI is expected to continue on Belfast City Council.
A Motion from former DUP member Ruth Patterson calls for Mrs Foster to step down during a full public inquiry. But a Sinn Fein amendment calls for a time-limited investigation.
The amendment also states that Attorney General John Larkin should appoint an independent judicial figure from outside to conduct the probe.
Ms Patterson said Sinn Fein was airbrushing a public inquiry out of the whole motion.
"They're really caught between a rock and a hard place on this one," she said. "We hear Martin McGuinness call for Arlene Foster to stand aside, which in my book is the right thing to do, and yet we hear Sinn Fein calling for an investigation into this and nothing more.
"I will not be accepting the amendment to my motion. I sincerely hope all my other councillor colleagues will do the right thing and vote for the motion as it stands.
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"There would be no admission of guilt if Arlene Foster were to step aside, it's purely to allow the inquiry to take place and let the public know the truth."
Later this month Sinn Fein will raise the matter of RHI in Stormont in what could be a defining moment for the future of the Executive.
In an interview with The Times newspaper, DUP MLA Jim Wells said that any attempt to make Mrs Foster step down would be blocked by a petition of concern.
Sinn Fein Health Minister Michelle O'Neill responded: "Any abuse of a petition of concern by the DUP to block the reasonable motion put forward by Sinn Fein will only further damage public confidence in the political institutions and accentuate the political crisis."
PUP leader Billy Hutchinson said he would reject anything less than a full judge-led public inquiry. "The people of Northern Ireland deserve much, much better," he said. "If the First Minister truly wishes to work for her country, she will put their needs before hers, stand aside, and permit a full, public, independent and judge-led inquiry to establish the facts of RHI.
"We can accept no less. The public deserve no less."