Justice Minister hits out at both Foster and McGuinness over RHI impasse

Picture by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye. 

Justice Minister Claire Sugden
Picture by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye. Justice Minister Claire Sugden

Stormont’s independent justice minister has accused Northern Ireland’s political leaders of letting her down over their handling of a botched renewable energy scheme.

Claire Sugden said she favoured an independent probe into an initiative that has left Stormont with a £490 million bill but said she did not support calls for First Minister Arlene Foster to step down while that investigation takes place.

Ms Sugden also ruled out quitting her pivotal job - a move that would likely force the collapse of the Democratic Unionist/Sinn Fein led coalition.

The power-sharing executive cannot function without a justice minister and Ms Sugden was the only Assembly member both DUP leader Mrs Foster and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness could agree on in the wake of last year’s election.

“Martin and Arlene have both let me down,” she said.

The East Londonderry MLA added: “Arlene and Martin might have reneged on their responsibilities to actually do a job for the people of Northern Ireland but I am not going to do that because I do have integrity and I will keep doing it until I can’t.”

The state-funded renewable heat incentive (RHI) was supposed to offer a proportion of the cost businesses had to pay to run eco-friendly boilers, but the subsidy tariffs were set too high, and without a cap, so it ended up paying out significantly more than the price of fuel.

This enabled applicants to “burn to earn” - getting free heat and making a profit as they did it.

Claims of widespread abuse include a farmer allegedly set to pocket around £1 million in the next two decades for heating an empty shed.

The Justice Minister had not commented publicly on the RHI scandal for over two weeks - prompting criticism from political rivals.

Breaking her recent silence, Ms Sugden said her job had become increasingly difficult.

But she said she would not resign because she still felt she could help change people’s lives for the better in her role. She also stressed that her quitting would send the Executive down a “path of no return”.

In an interview with BBC Radio Ulster, the minister added: “I think with this particular issue there is a lot of political posturing going on. Regrettably the two main parties are reverting to party politics and they are feathering their own nests in that respect - they are keeping their own constituents right.”

All rival parties at Stormont have demanded Mrs Foster stand aside while her role in the affair is investigated.

Mrs Foster oversaw the inception of the RHI scheme during her time as economy minister.

She has steadfastly refused to step aside and has claimed some of those calling for her head are motivated by misogyny.

Ms Sugden said she did not believe calls for her to stand aside were fair.

“Anyone forcing her to step aside is actually punishing her for something that hasn’t been substantiated,” she said.

Senior members of Sinn Fein have warned they will exercise their power to collapse the Executive if Mrs Foster does not temporarily stand down to facilitate a probe.

If the republican party follows through with that threat Northern Ireland will be facing a snap Assembly election, less than a year after the last one.

It was originally envisaged that the Treasury would foot the bill for the RHI, but the costs spiralled well beyond London’s financial commitment.

The total RHI spend in Northern Ireland is estimated at £1,150 million over the next 20 years.

The Treasury is set to cover £660 million of that, with Stormont landed with the remaining £490 million.

Sinn Fein is due to publish its own plan for investigating the RHI affair later on Friday.