Arlene Foster is facing increased pressure to appear before the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) as concerns over a botched green energy scheme intensify.
The first minister and DUP leader last week rejected calls for her to “consider her position” after a whistleblower revealed that repeated warnings over serious flaws in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) were ignored.
Mrs Foster was the minister in charge of DETI – the department responsible for the scheme – when concerns were first raised in 2013.
She said she could not have acted differently and added: “There really isn’t anything more, with hindsight, that I could have done given the advice that was given to me at the time.”
A number of the DUP’s political rivals are now calling for the full list of those who benefitted from the controversial scheme to be made available for scrutiny.
The SDLP’s Nichola Mallon said the scale of the cost to the public purse – estimated to be £400 million – warranted a recall of the Assembly and the appearance of Mrs Foster before the committee for questioning.
Mrs Mallon told the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme that the scheme was a “total and utter fiasco,” and added: “She should do the right thing and appear, but if not, she should be compelled to appear.”
Mrs Mallon added: “All that I can see is inaction from this Executive.
“This Executive fails to take ownership of issues, it fails to take responsibility and there’s a serious lack of accountability. All three of those need to be fundamentally addressed.”
Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy said: “The ministers responsible for operating the RHI should now make themselves available to the PAC and provide whatever information they possess about this scheme.”
He added: “Despite three open public evidence sessions with the two permanent secretaries in charge of DETI from the beginning in 2012, until the close of the RHI in 2016, there is still no transparent, comprehensive or satisfactory explanation as to what has gone so badly wrong.
“No political or commercial interests should be allowed to impede the PAC fulfilling its remit. It must have access to all the available evidence. That means there should be full disclosure of all beneficiaries from this scheme.”
The failed scheme was originally devised to encourage users to switch to biomass heating systems, however, it was made so generous by Stormont that one farmer is receiving £1 million a year for heating an empty shed, while a firm will get £1.5 million annually for 20 years for heating a previously unheated factory.
Writing in Monday’s News Letter, commentator Alex Kane questions “how difficult is it to pin the tail on the donkey?”
He said: “How difficult can it be for a minister to sit down with the permanent secretary and clarify who gave the nod of approval, ticked the relevant boxes and oversaw the ongoing implementation of this particular scheme? How difficult can it be for Arlene Foster to explain what she did with the letter she received from the whistleblower?
“Did anyone from her department ever tell her that the contents of the whistleblower’s letter were worth following up?
“Crucially, did anyone from her department ever tell her that there was no case to answer?”
It has now emerged that the brother of a special advisor (Spad) who assisted Mrs Foster in overseeing RHI is among those benefitting from the scheme.
Andrew Crawford from Beragh, Co Tyrone, was a Spad for the first minister at DETI when RHI was introduced.
A DUP spokesman said: “Dr Andrew Crawford was special advisor in the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment during the period 2011 to May 2015. Dr Crawford did not meet the whistleblower nor has he any record of these issues having been raised with him at that time.”