RHI scandal: Only DUP and Sinn Fein not backing public inquiry

Martin McGuinness said Arlene Foster would speak in the Assembly on Monday in a personal capacity, not as first minister
Martin McGuinness said Arlene Foster would speak in the Assembly on Monday in a personal capacity, not as first minister

The DUP and Sinn Féin remain the only major parties yet to back calls for a “judge-led public inquiry” to get to the bottom of the RHI scandal.

The two largest political parties in Northern Ireland are each, however, calling for some form of “an independent investigation”, but appeared to stop just short of calling for a public inquiry.

Every other major party in Northern Ireland has given at least some form of support in recent days to a public inquiry.

Asked specifically whether they would support former DUP minister Jonathan Bell’s calls for a “judge-led public inquiry”, both the DUP and Sinn Féin declined the opportunity to back the proposal.

The DUP are proposing, instead, “an independent investigation, free from political interference”, but say the precise details have yet to be worked out.

Sinn Féin are proposing an “independent, time-framed and robust investigation” and will call on Arlene Foster to step aside to allow it to take place.

Martin McGuinness MLA said: “Sinn Féin will bring forward a proposal to the Assembly which calls on the first minister to stand aside until this independent investigation brings forward a preliminary report.”

First Minister Arlene Foster is to make a highly anticipated statement on the RHI scandal on Monday.

Mr McGuinness said on Sunday: “The statement which Arlene Foster plans to make to the Assembly tomorrow does not have my authority or approval as deputy first minister. We have told the DUP this.

“If she speaks this will be in a personal capacity and not in her role as first minister.

“There is no credibility in an inquiry established solely by the DUP or in the selective release of some documents by DUP departments.

“If the DUP does take a unilateral approach, disregarding the authority and joint nature of the Executive Office on an issue which is cross-cutting, with massive budgetary implications and which is undermining public confidence in the political institutions, this will have grave consequences.”

Asked whether they would support a public inquiry, a DUP spokesperson said: “The DUP supports the need for an independent investigation, free from partisan political interference, to establish the facts around the RHI scheme.

“We are of the view that the conclusions of any investigation must be made public and that any investigation must be conducted speedily to assist in the process of building public confidence.

“We have been working to reach agreement with officials and others on the precise details.”

Last night Sinn Fein has published the text of a motion which it will table at Stormont on Monday and which gives the most detail yet on the party’s likely position on what form the RHI inquiry will take.

Sinn Fein, which has been under pressure from some supporters over what they see as its restrained approach to the crisis engulfing the DUP, said that it wanted to see an independent inquiry led by “an independent judicial figure from outside this jurisdiction and appointed by the attorney general”.

However, the party stopped short of calling for a full public inquiry overseen by a judge. That means that the inquiry envisaged by Sinn Fein is likely to sit behind closed doors and may not have powers to compel witnesses and documentation.

The Sinn Fein motion says: “This investigation must establish how the RHI was developed in strategic policy and legislative terms, including its primary purpose and objectives; how the scheme’s operational roll-out was agreed, administered and implemented in order to match these objectives; and thereafter where overall accountability and compliance for the RHI scheme rested in both policy and financial accountability terms – and were these achieved in the view of the independent investigator.”

It also said the probe should investigate “the motives and actions of ministers, special advisors, civil servants, and any others involved” and to establish whether there was a conflict of interest for any of those involved in setting up or running the scheme.

The four-month probe would also investigate all applications and determine in each case whether there is a legal basis to recover money or refer individuals to the police for criminal investigation.