Wednesday 23 May 2018

McGuinness calls on Arlene Foster to 'step aside' for 'cash for ash' probe

First Minister Arlene Foster has refused to say whether she would push for any kind of special status for Northern Ireland following Brexit. Photo: PA
First Minister Arlene Foster has refused to say whether she would push for any kind of special status for Northern Ireland following Brexit. Photo: PA Newsdesk Newsdesk

Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has called on First Minister Arlene Foster to "step aside" to allow an investigation into a controversial green energy scheme.

Mr McGuinness said he told her over the phone he was seriously concerned about allegations around the eco-friendly initiative that has left Stormont facing an estimated £400 (€476m) million overspend.

The credibility of Northern Ireland's peace-building power-sharing political institutions is being "undermined" by the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme row, he said.

"This includes allegations from a former Democratic Unionist Party minister that there was corruption," he said.

Mr McGuinness said he told Ms Foster that taxpayers' money has been wasted in this scheme, which needs to be retrieved, and the only way to establish the truth, and rebuild trust in the power-sharing executive, is to set up a fully independent investigation.

"In addition, I also said that, in the public interest, she should stand aside from the role as First Minister while that investigation is under way and at least until an initial assessment had been concluded into the veracity of all the allegations," he added.

"That is what I would do if I was in this situation.

"I asked the First Minister to take the time and consider this suggestion carefully."

The "cash for ash" controversy escalated on Thursday when former DUP economy minister Jonathan Bell broke ranks to level a series of explosive claims against Ms Foster and party advisers.

Street protests have also emerged calling on First Minister Arlene Foster to resign.

The small scale demonstrations in Belfast and Londonderry were organised by left wing political party People Before Profit.

Between 200 to 300 people attended the event in Belfast, with fewer than 100 in Derry. They waved placards demanding the DUP leader's resignation for her role in the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

The protest at the front of Belfast City Hall was attended by a variety of socialist and republican activists.

Staged yards from the city's outdoor Christmas market, shoppers and festive revellers watched as the vocal collection of demonstrators chanted "Foster Out".

Here are the 10 things you need to know:

1. What was the "cash for ash" scheme?

The project was designed to encourage businesses to switch from burning fossil fuels to wood biomass heating.

The Renewable Heating Incentive was supposed to help businesses mitigate the costs of running eco-friendly boilers actually ended up paying out more than the cost of the fuel - so the more people burned, the more public money they earned. Some applicants were found to heat buildings on an industrial scale just to make money.

Unlike a similar scheme in Britain, no cap was initially put on the payments.

It has been revealed that after civil servants urged for the closure of the scheme in June 2015 until a tiered system was introduced in November, there was a spike in applications.

It has left taxpayers with a bill critics claim could reach £400m (€470m).

2. Foster has denied Bell's claims

The DUP leader has strenuously denied his claims and has accused the former Enterprise Minister of acting aggressively towards her in a stormy meeting.

She claimed that he was making the allegations to mask his own failings over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

3. A judge-led inquiry has been called for

The Strangford DUP MLA, who seems set to be imminently expelled from the party, said that civil service documents would support his account. He called for a judge-led public inquiry into the affair.

4. Mr Bell revealed he initially refused Foster's instructions

In an extraordinary interview with broadcaster Stephen Nolan, Mr Bell said that matters between himself and Mrs Foster came to a head during a stormy meeting earlier this year after he had been informed that she wanted to keep the catastrophic scheme open for another two weeks.

He said that he initially refused her instruction. And a tit-for-tat argument followed...

5. Bell: There was a 'hostile' atmosphere

"I was ordered to appear in front of the First Minister ... in the strongest terms both in volume and in force Arlene Foster as First Minister overruled me and told me to keep the scheme open," he told the BBC.

"She was highly agitated and angry because I had been refusing the whole way for the last period and telling them I wasn't going to do this." He said there was a "hostile" atmosphere of "fear".

He added: "She (came) walking in and shouted at me that I would keep this scheme open."

6. Foster: He stood over me in 'an aggressive way'

Mrs Foster strenuously denied Mr Bell's claims. She claimed that he was the one acting aggressively in the meeting - something which she alleged was a character trait.

"He will try to portray himself in a particular way this evening, but plenty of people know what Jonathan Bell is like," she stated.

Regarding the meeting, she said: "He was very aggressive with me and I have a witness on how he spoke to me.

"He used his physical bulk to stand over me in quite an aggressive way.

The Jonathan Bell that appears on your programme is not Jonathan Bell that would be familiar to many of his political colleagues and many of his civil servants who worked in his department and many in the business community."

7. Claims delay was Bell who kept scheme open

Mrs Foster alleged that Mr Bell was the one who delayed keeping the high tariffed scheme in place.

"I am bemused as to why he would leave it open for such a period of time," she said.

The DUP leader denied that she or her predecessor, Peter Robinson, tried to keep the high tariffs running.

"He (Mr Bell) took the decision to leave it open for that period of time," she said.

8. Claims no evidence DUP special advisers influenced Bell

Foster said there was no evidence that DUP special advisers (Spads) tried to influence Mr Bell and claimed that was a "distraction" being put forward by him.

The Spads accused of seeking to delay the tariff change have also rejected Mr Bell's claims.

9. Claims that attempts were made to remove name from reports

Bell has alleged that DUP advisers attempted to remove her name from documents linked to the catastrophic scheme. Mrs Foster said that if papers were altered "it wasn't on my say-so".

Mr Bell said that DUP spads, Timothy Johnston and Andrew Crawford "were not allowing this scheme to be closed" as costs were spiralling out of control in autumn 2015. He claimed that an email trail existed to prove attempts to alter official documents and that this was revealed to him by a senior civil servant in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

10. Last (but not least) - more contradicting evidence

Bell has said that the two most senior civil servants in that department were prepared to put evidence of the alleged interference "formally on the record in an inquiry".

Mr Johnston and Dr Crawford categorically denied Mr Bell's allegations and said they never sought to keep the RHI scheme open against his wishes. They maintained that their roles were simply "to offer advice" and not to "influence any decision".

Bell has said he put his concerns in writing to Foster, deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, and the party chairman, Lord Morrow.

Another Spad Andrew Crawford of the Finance Department, who had previously worked with Mrs Foster in Enterprise, also denied seeking to keep the RHI open at the higher tariff against the minster's wishes.

Another two DUP Spads - Richard Bullick, and the recently-resigned Stephen Brimstone - both denied seeing any heated exchange between the Mr Bell and Mrs Foster.

Senior civil servants Andrew McCormick and Chris Stewart did not respond to requests for comment.

Online Editors

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