SDLP rules out part in Arlene Foster led administration as RHI questions remain

SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood. (Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press)

SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood. (Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press)

The SDLP has ruled out entering a new powersharing administration led by Arlene Foster as long as “questions remain” around the DUP leader’s role in Stormont’s botched green energy scandal.

Party leader Colum Eastwood claimed an ongoing “drip feed of revelations” about the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was “poisoning public confidence in politics”.

His remarks came after a newspaper report questioned when Mrs Foster was aware of the RHI’s fatal weakness - the lack of cost controls.

The state-funded 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 so. The scandal has left Stormont facing a £490 million overspend.

On Thursday, the News Letter published a consultation document produced by the Stormont department in charge of the RHI in 2013 that raised the potential need for cost control measures.

The document was introduced by a foreward by then-economy minister Mrs Foster. The DUP leader has insisted she never acted against civil service advice in all her dealings with the RHI.

Mr Eastwood said: “Today’s revelation that Arlene Foster was aware of cost control recommendations from civil servants demolishes her claims of ignorance.”

A judge-led public inquiry has been set up to examine a controversy that triggered the collapse of the powersharing administration at Stormont and forced Mrs Foster from her role as first minister, but it will not have completed its work until long after March’s snap Assembly election.

The SDLP leader said his party would not support an executive with Mrs Foster in a lead role while questions around RHI remained unanswered. The SDLP declined a seat in the powersharing executive after the last May’s Assembly poll, instead choosing to form part of the official opposition alongside the Ulster Unionists.

“The truth about Arlene Foster’s knowledge and involvement in the cash for ash scandal continues to come dropping slow,” said Mr Eastwood.

“Each day brings further revelations about the scale of the former First Minister’s working knowledge of the scheme and the urgent need for cost controls. The drip of information is poisoning public confidence in politics and in politicians.

“It’s time a line was drawn in the sand. For as long as questions about the former First Minister’s conduct remain, the SDLP will not support a government led by Arlene Foster. We will not be complicit in the poisoned political atmosphere that the DUP has created.

“I would appeal to those members of the DUP who are as disgusted by this scandal as we are. They must take action to restore confidence in our politics by compelling Arlene Foster to stand aside pending the public inquiry into this scandal. This is bigger than any one politician or any one party. For once, they must allow the public interest to come first.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for the Economy said no specific recommendation to introduce controls was put to Mrs Foster when she headed the department.

“The 2013 consultation document sought views on possible proposals for cost control,” she said.

“However, neither before the consultation nor afterwards was any recommendation put to the Minister to introduce cost controls as outlined in the consultation document.”

The DUP said: “The questions raised are exactly the kind of matters that the public inquiry has been established to consider.”