Foster: Calls for me to stand down motivated by misogyny

Pacemaker Press Belfast 16-12-2016:  First minister Arlene Foster. Picture Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press Belfast 16-12-2016: First minister Arlene Foster. Picture Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Northern Ireland’s First Minister has claimed calls for her to stand down over her role in a botched green energy scheme are motivated by misogyny.

Arlene Foster said the fact she is the first female to hold the leading position in Stormont’s power-sharing administration is an issue with many of those demanding she step aside.

“A lot of it is personal, a lot of it sadly is misogynistic as well because I am a female - the first female leader of Northern Ireland - so I firmly believe that is the case as well,” she said.

The Democratic Unionist leader has been under intense pressure for weeks amid a furore about an eco-friendly initiative that has left Stormont facing an overspend bill of around £500 million.

All rival parties at Stormont have demanded she stand aside while her role in the scandal is investigated. Ms Foster oversaw the inception of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme during her time as economy minister.

Sinn Fein, the DUP’s partners in government, have warned they will exercise their power to collapse the Stormont Executive if Mrs Foster does not temporarily stand down to facilitate a probe. If the republican party follows through with that threat Northern Ireland will be facing a snap Assembly election, less than a year after the last one.

While many of Mrs Foster’s critics are men, a number of leading female politicians at Stormont have also heavily criticised her handling of the affair, among them Alliance Party leader Naomi Long and Sinn Fein health minister Michelle O’Neill.

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 it.

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

Highlighting her first-hand experience of violence during the Troubles, Mrs Foster insisted she had been through much worse in her life and made clear she was going nowhere.

“I have come through a lot worse than venomous attacks from my political opponents and I intend to continue to lead,” she told Sky News.

“It’s no secret that during my childhood the IRA tried to murder my father, it’s no secret that in the past the IRA put a bomb on my school bus, so do I really think I am going to step aside at the behest of Sinn Fein? No I am not.

“I am here because the electorate put me into this position. I take the responsibility very, very seriously and intend to see it through.”

Asked if temporarily leaving her post was preferable to an election, Mrs Foster said: “Why would I stand aside, because I have done nothing wrong? There hasn’t even been an investigation into this matter.

“The (Assembly’s) Public Accounts Committee has not finished their investigation. I want an (separate) inquiry to take place so that we can deal with all of the transparency issues. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein are on a party political mission to get me to step aside to weaken unionism, which I will never allow to happen.

“Simply because I am a woman doesn’t mean I am going to roll over to Sinn Fein - I am not going to roll over to Sinn Fein, I am not going to roll over to my political opponents.

“I am going to deal with the issues in front of me because that’s what the electorate want me to do.”

It was 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.