O’Neill: We won’t back Foster until RHI inquiry completed

Michelle O'Neill at Sinn Fein's manifesto launch in the Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre, Armagh city
Michelle O'Neill at Sinn Fein's manifesto launch in the Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre, Armagh city

Sinn Fein’s new leader in Northern Ireland has insisted that the party will not immediately enter into power-sharing with Arlene Foster after the March election.

Michelle O’Neill said the party will not support the DUP leader in an Executive office until an inquiry into the botched renewable energy scheme is complete.

Launching Sinn Fein’s manifesto in Armagh, Michelle O’Neill said while there is a “cloud over Arlene Foster” in relation to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal the party “will not be supporting her position of first minister or deputy first minister in an Executive office”.

“We have to have a full investigation. We have public concern and outrage and demands for answers. The RHI scheme has been all of the DUP’s making,” Mrs O’Neill said.

She also said that an Irish language act will be a very important issue in any post-election talks, but refused to say if it could be a deal breaker.

Recently Mrs Foster said she would not be supporting the introduction of an Irish language act.

Speaking at the launch of her party’s election campaign in Lurgan, she said: “If we have an Irish language act, maybe we should have a Polish language act as well because there are more people in Northern Ireland who speak Polish, compared to Irish.”

Referring to Sinn Fein demands, she said: “If you feed a crocodile, it will keep coming back for more.”

However, Mrs O’Neill said: “The Irish language act is an important issue for Sinn Fein. Look at Scotland and Wales. They still have a health service and education service alongside a language act. So we will not be detracted.

“We know what the DUP are trying to do, to take away from the fact this election is about arrogance, disrespect and contempt for the public.”

Northern Ireland will go to the polls on March 2 to elect a new Assembly after the Executive collapsed over the botched RHI scheme.

Stormont was plunged into crisis after the resignation of Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. The catalyst was the RHI programme which is likely to cost taxpayers £490 million.

The row over the scheme has revived a range of other issues, including the Irish language and gay rights, which divided the DUP-Sinn Fein powersharing executive.

A period of negotiation between political parties is likely after the elections before devolved government is reinstated.

Sinn Fein has said the secretary of state cannot chair any talks, accusing him of being “partisan”.

“James Brokenshire has shown himself to be partisan with his comments in relation to legacy. His refusal to accept the wishes of the majority of people here in relation to Brexit have shown he is not an honest broker,” said Mrs O’Neill.

Mr Brokenshire faced criticism after he wrote in a newspaper column that investigations into killings during the Troubles are “disproportionately” focusing on members of the police and Army.

Mrs O’Neill said: “His crass comments on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in relation to soldiers receiving immunity are totally not befitting his role, so he can’t be an honest broker in these negotiations. We would prefer to have an external chair.”

She laughed off comments by Mrs Foster that she was just a puppet for party president Gerry Adams.

“I know what my job is as a leader. I intend to lead this party into the election and into the future on the basis of equality, on the basis of delivering in terms of integrity and respect. People can try to sidestep and bring this into different areas.

“This election is clearly a must and necessary election because of the actions of the DUP, so any attempt to try and bring us into different territory, I’m not interested.”

During the manifesto launch, chaired by Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald, Mrs O’Neill said a key issue for the party is an all-Ireland referendum as soon as possible.

“We want to see a border poll as soon as absolutely possible. We want to see a new and agreed Ireland and nobody has anything to fear from Irish republicanism,” she added.