The DUP launched a fierce counter-attack against its rivals on Tuesday night, accusing other parties of having wanted to make the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme even more profligate than it was.
Lee Reynolds, DUP group leader on Belfast City Council, told a meeting of the full council that a range of parties had wished to increase the subsidies paid out under the grossly-overspending scheme.
He also firmly rejected the idea, put forward by Sinn Fein and others, that Arlene Foster should leave her post (at least for the duration of an inquiry) by stating that extraordinary revelations have come to light about Sinn Fein members in the past, and that they did not step aside as a result.
Mr Reynolds was speaking in response to a motion brought by ex-colleague Ruth Patterson (now an independent), which had called for the council to ask the Secretary of State to a set up a full public inquiry into the RHI scheme, and for Mrs Foster to step aside during this.
During the subsequent roughly hour-and-a-half debate, the DUP was attacked from all quarters.
SDLP councillor Tim Attwood described RHI as “the biggest public scandal since De Lorean” – something dating back to the 1980s.
People Before Profit councillor Matthew Collins said it looked to him like there was “corruption all over it” and suggested RHI was a “slush fund for the DUP’s friends in the business community”.
Green councillor Georgina Milne lamented that one “travesty” of the scheme was that “people will now be very wary of renewable technology initiatives” in general.
Rising to address the points, councillor Reynolds – a key behind-the-scenes figure in the DUP, who was involved in the Brexit campaign in the Province – likened the meeting to a “kangaroo court”.
In response to Sinn Fein’s call for Mrs Foster to step aside, he said Conor Murphy – Sinn Fein former infrastructure minister – had been in charge of overseeing “The Northern Ireland Water debacle” (a reference to the major water shortages of winter 2010), and was also found to have discriminated against Protestants applying for jobs, but “didn’t stand aside for a single day”.
As for Martin McGuinness, during the Bloody Sunday inquiry “he was potentially implicated in the murder of two police officers” and did not stand aside.
Then in 2015, a killing in Belfast was “put by a PSNI investigation at the feet of the republican movement” (a reference to ex-IRA man Kevin McGuigan).
He likewise noted there were no Sinn Fein resignations as a result of that either.
He added it is a “myth” that £490m would be lost to the Northern Ireland coffers (just one of the estimates of the cost of RHI, which have ranged from £400m up to £600m). Much of the money is “retrievable”, he said.
He then went on: “Did any party say the tariff was too high? No they didn’t.
“Do you want the bad news for those who are now presenting themselves as the protectors of the public pocket?
“Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the UUP and Greens – I’ve noticed the Greens trying to re-write history around this – all complained the tariff was too low.
“If we’d listened to the parties who are doing most of the complaining now, we wouldn’t be looking at £400m: we’d be looking at even double that potentially...
“The record shows they would’ve made the scheme worse, not any better.”
Mr Reynolds did not elaborate on the details of this, and no-one of the parties he mentioned spoke again by the time a vote was called.
Ultimately, councillor Patterson’s vote was carried by 23 votes to 12 (with DUP opposing it, and Sinn Fein not voting).
What kind of inquiry do parties want?:
Two amendments were proposed to councillor Patterson’s motion.
UUP councillor Jeff Dudgeon said if an inquiry was not explicitly time-limited then, like the Historical Abuse Inquiry, it could “go on for two or three years and that makes the whole thing a nonsense”.
He also wanted to change the motion so that it called on Arlene Foster to resign completely instead of just to step aside.
Sinn Fein proposed their own motion too, seeking to call for an “independent, time-bound, robust and transparent investigation” – but not a full, official public inquiry – during which Mrs Foster should stand aside.
Sinn Fein said a public inquiry could take too long, and despite the party having made bizarre and contradictory statements on this point in recent weeks, councillor Deirdre Hargey said: “We’ve been clear and consistent in our message throughout this. The crisis in confidence is now. It’s not in a year or two years. It’s now.”
Ultimately, all motions except councillors Patteron’s failed.