RHI scandal: SF chairman lashes out at ‘juvenile journalists’

Declan Kearney MLA.
Declan Kearney MLA.

One of Sinn Fein’s most senior figures yesterday denounced what he termed “juvenile journalists” as he struggled to explain his party’s position on an inquiry into the RHI scandal.

Declan Kearney, whose conflicting positions were highlighted on the front page of yesterday’s News Letter, appeared on BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show yesterday morning where he was repeatedly pressed by presenter Vinny Hurrell over what exactly Sinn Fein is calling for.

The South Antrim MLA insisted that Sinn Fein’s position on the issue was clear, but failed to explain why several senior party figures – including Conor Murphy and Mary Lou McDonald – had previously called for a full public inquiry.

When pressed on Sinn Fein’s position, he said: “I know there are some sections of the media, maybe even a few juvenile journalists, who are frantically trying to make some sort of issue over Sinn Fein’s stance on this issue.

“The position is clear, it is consistent...”

Mr Hurrell put it to the Sinn Fein chairman that the party’s position was far from clear. The MLA replied: “It is a sole position in relation to the need for an independent time-framed and robust and independent investigation.”

Mr Kearney went on to accuse News Letter political editor Sam McBride of “dancing on the head of a pin” for highlighting the difference between a public inquiry with full statutory powers and a less robust ‘independent investigation’.

Confusion reigned on Monday when Mr Kearney issued a statement calling for a public inquiry, only for his comments to be withdrawn by the Sinn Fein press office and reissued by the party two hours later with the demand altered to a call for an independent investigation. The party blamed a “typo” for the content of the original statement.

But then, just before midnight that evening, Mr Kearney issued the original statement - with its call for a public inquiry - from his personal email address, sending it to the News Letter with the words “Please share this important information widely.”

Sinn Fein yesterday repeated its call for Arlene Foster to step aside as First Minister while a probe into the scheme gets under way.

But DUP MP Gregory Campbell insisted his party leader would be going nowhere. The East Londonderry veteran told UTV: “I don’t think Arlene Foster really has any pressure on her from within the party or the unionist community.

“The more Sinn Fein press for her to go the more unionists will be saying we need a strong woman and a strong first minister.”

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long wrote to the UK government ministers, claiming DUP resistance to a public inquiry should prompt action from Whitehall.

She said it was vital an inquiry was triggered, as it would have the powers to compel evidence and witnesses.

“In light of such serious allegations and the failure of the Executive to address them, I would ask that Treasury step in and set up such a fully independent, judge-led inquiry into this matter as a matter of urgency as I am increasingly of the view that the NI Executive will not be capable of overcoming political differences to do so,” she wrote.

However, the Government last night moved to distance itself from the issue, saying that it was for Stormont to deal with.

Mrs Foster’s department 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.

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