Sinn Fein forced a snap election when it thought the DUP and unionism had “been weakened” by the RHI scandal, Arlene Foster has claimed.
Launching the DUP’s election campaign in Co Armagh on Monday morning, party leader and outgoing first minister Mrs Foster referred several times to Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams as a malign influence in Northern Ireland politics – whose personal agenda will now be taken forward by Michelle O’Neill.
Mrs Foster said: “Make no mistake, that this election will be very close. So come election day, Sinn Fein could have enough votes to be the biggest party, capture the first minister’s post and push to implement Gerry Adams’ agenda for Northern Ireland. Just imagine what that would mean for our way of life.
“Martin McGuinness may have been nominally replaced by Michelle O’Neill as leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland but make no mistake about it, it is Gerry Adams who is back and centre stage. She was hand-picked by Gerry Adams to do his bidding in Northern Ireland.”
Commenting on her handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive crisis, Mrs Foster told the Brownlow House gathering in Lurgan she accepted that “things could have been handled better”.
She said: I understand the anger that people feel. I understand it and I feel it too. I can assure you that no one feels worse about what has happened than I do, and I recognise that, for some, doubts remain about the RHI scheme and my role in it.
“I know for my part that I have done nothing wrong. I know that at all times I acted with integrity and on the advice of officials.
“I know that any investigation into the RHI scheme will clear my name, however, I also recognise that me saying that is not enough – I know that people need to see that for themselves. People need further reassurance on this issue...and that is why I’m pleased, that’s why I’m relieved, that the full investigation, that I have been repeatedly calling for since the middle of December has now been set up.”
“I suppose it’s progress when even Gerry Adams admits it’s in the process of being sorted now.”
Mrs Foster said the time to collapse the assembly was following an inquiry into the RHI scandal if wrong-doing was revealed, not before the inquiry had even started.
“The roots of this crisis are much more deep-seated. The RHI merely gave Sinn Fein the cover to bring down Stormont, and to force an election when it thought the DUP, and unionism, had been weakened,” she said.
There was a warm round of applause for the party leader when she said that former soldiers and police officers would not be put in the dock while terrorist walk free – as long as she was the leader of the largest party in Northern Ireland.
“That is not going to be allowed to happen,” she said.
• See News Letter Facebook page for video of entire DUP election launch