There is no need for Arlene Foster to step aside temporarily

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

Suddenly it seems that this Stormont administration is not as secure as it seemed even days ago.

Sinn Fein is threatening, in effect, to force an election if Arlene Foster refuses to step aside while the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal is investigated.

The RHI scandal is a serious one and this newspaper was an early advocate for an inquiry that has the power to compel documents and witnesses. However, it must not become a party political witch hunt. Mrs Foster is entirely right to stand her ground, and it was encouraging yesterday to see the DUP rally round the first minister – including those from the traditional Paisleyite wing of the party, who are sometimes thought to be at odds with the more modernising element.

There is no reason why a rigorous inquiry cannot take place while Mrs Foster remains in place.

It is rather absurd to hear a po-faced Mairtin O Muilleoir talking in grave tones about “this dreadful waste of public money”. The finance minister’s party is one of the most profligate on these islands – indeed it is not so long since Sinn Fein almost brought down the Assembly through its fierce resistance to even the most elementary curbs to welfare abuses.

Republicans fought a £26,000 annual welfare cap, because so many people in its strongholds earned above that amount (equivalent to a pre tax income of £34,000 a year). In West Belfast alone it was almost 1,000 families.

This is not to say that welfare and RHI are remotely comparable payments but merely to point out that when it comes to public money fiscal responsibility is not in the Sinn Fein DNA.

There are serious lessons to be learned from the RHI scandal and a growing number of questions that need to be answered about how it came to pass.

Perhaps Sinn Fein will trigger an election. So be it. The party did not do as well in 2016 as it thought it would.

But the key issue now is to uncover exactly what went on at each stage of this debacle, which will involve difficult questions for the DUP but also profound ones for the civil service.