Arlene Foster rejects calls to resign over botched renewable energy scheme

First Minister Arlene Foster

First Minister Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster has robustly rejected calls to resign over her handling of a botched green energy scheme.

The First Minister batted away allegations that she did not act appropriately when concerns were raised about the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

Defending her position from China, where she is promoting Northern Ireland, Mrs Foster said she could not have acted differently.

She said: “There really isn’t anything more, with hindsight, that I could have done given the advice that was given to me at the time.”

Mrs Foster was minister for the economy when many of the fatal errors in the RHI scheme were made.

She has faced claims she did not do enough to pursue whistleblower allegations that sought to expose the flaws in the system.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has gone so far as to call on her to consider her position, while other rivals have demanded she make a statement to the Assembly explaining why the whistleblower claims were not acted on.

The DUP leader said the concerns were taken “very seriously” and were referred to senior departmental officials.

“It has been acknowledged, indeed by the permanent secretary, that I did all that was appropriate in the circumstances,” Mrs Foster added.

“If anyone has any knowledge of the amount of instructions that a minister gives on a day by day basis they would understand, it is custom and practice actually, that it is only if there is some issue, if an exception is raised with me by an official that it would come back to my desk.

“That didn’t happen on this occasion. Of course I regret that it didn’t happen on this occasion but that’s the reality.”

Mrs Foster also said she was not surprised by the calls for her resignation but urged Opposition MLAs to “look at themselves”.

“I am not surprised in that respect but I think that the oppositions need to take a look at themselves when they say that.

“Of course the first opportunity for cost reduction came to the Assembly earlier this year and what did they do? They voted against the cost reduction measures,” she told UTV.

The RHI aimed to cut the cost of green energy to encourage people off fossil fuels but ended up landing ministers with a massive overspend.

It encouraged the installation of costly eco-friendly heating systems by paying a tariff per kilowatt of heat burned over a 20-year period.

However, unlike in the rest of the UK, in Northern Ireland no cap or payment tier system was placed on the money that could be claimed in proportion to the size of boiler and the hours it was operated.

That effectively enabled a business to burn unnecessary heat 24/7 just to make money.

Management of the scheme is currently being examined by MLAs on Stormont’s public accounts committee.

Thousands signed up to the RHI - a deluge that ultimately forced its closure, but not before Stormont had been left exposed to a huge overspend.

Overall, more than £1 billion of public money will be paid by 2036 to Northern Ireland-based businesses which signed up to the scheme. Almost half of that will be paid out by the Stormont Executive.

Branding the scheme a “squander made in Stormont”, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister posed the question: “It might cost him his job but would the Minister agree, that at least one of his predecessors, particularly Mrs (Arlene) Foster was asleep at the wheel in terms of failing to exercise ministerial supervision and ensuring that there were adequate cost controls in place.”

However, Mr Hamilton hit back and said previous ministers had been ill-advised by policy officials.

“It is very clear to me that the ministers followed all advice given to them and because that advice was wrong; it was based on bad grounds the scheme was badly designed,” he said.

“Nobody has denied, least of all me that this was shocking and we need to deal with those problems.”