RHI scandal: Allister doubts if Sugden would bring down Stormont

Claire Sugden pictured outside Parliament Buildings as part of an anti-crime gang advertising campaign

Claire Sugden pictured outside Parliament Buildings as part of an anti-crime gang advertising campaign

Doubt has been voiced over whether the justice minister really would pull down the Stormont Assembly if the crisis around the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) continues.

In a tough-talking statement to fellow MLAs on Monday, Claire Sugden described the controversy as “devastating”, said that allegations of corruption surrounding it made her “feel sick”, and branded the chaotic Assembly discussion surrounding it as a “farce”.

The independent East Londonderry MLA said of the Stormont Executive that she would “kick the house of cards down myself” – if it were not for the fact that Northern Ireland had “so much to lose” by doing so.

“Let it not be forgotten by all sides of the House that I have the capability to do just that,” she had said.

Her role in the hugely-contentious justice ministry post is crucial for the Sinn Fein-DUP power-sharing government.

The DUP has said it would not accept Sinn Fein taking on the justice role (which involves overseeing the police and the courts), meaning that any decision by her to quit could cause chaos among the two major parties.

TUV leader and North Antrim MLA Jim Allister, one of the fiercest critics of the DUP amid the discussions in the Assembly on Monday, told the News Letter on Tuesday that he doubts there is “serious intent” behind the notion that she could collapse the Assembly.

He said: “This is the justice minister who, before she became justice minister, told us that this was an Executive headed by ‘jokers’. And then once they offered her the chauffeur-driven car, she found it irresistible.

“I wouldn’t be convinced that she’d be the one to pull down the house of cards, including the jokers.”

He added that, as long as the crisis continues, “she should be constantly asked the question: Have you had enough yet?”

Mr Allister said he would be “pleasantly surprised” if she quit and brought down the Assembly, but that “self-interest” on the parts of all involved are likely to keep it going.

In the Assembly on Monday, Ms Sugden did not directly say she had lost confidence in the first minister, and declared the SDLP’s motion to have her step aside was “premature”.

She announced that she would support an investigation, perhaps one led by a judge, adding that “my confidence or, indeed, lack of confidence in the first minister will be based on substantiated information, not allegations manifested in the media”.

She added: “It would be remiss of me, particularly as justice minister, to pass judgment without a full investigation or hearing.

“No court in the land would do so, so why is it appropriate to do so in the House today before a fair independent investigation?”

In a speech in autumn 2015, Ms Sugden (then only a normal MLA, not a minister) had said of the Assembly: “This house of cards is falling, and good will come of that only if the jokers at the top come crashing down too and do not get up again.”

Asked directly if she would quit if an investigation found Arlene Foster culpable for failings in the RHI scheme, the justice department said: “As stated by Claire Sugden yesterday in the Assembly: ‘It would be remiss of me, particularly as justice minister, to pass judgment without a full investigation or hearing. No court in the land would do so’.”

WHAT IS THE RHI SCHEME, AND HOW DID IT ALL GO WRONG?