RHI Scandal: Executive at loggerheads over plans to cut vast losses

Simon Hamilton and Arlene Foster
Simon Hamilton and Arlene Foster

The Assembly could be recalled to approve emergency measures dealing with the overspend on Northern Ireland’s botched green energy scheme, the DUP last night suggested.

But the DUP’s Executive partners Sinn Fein last night said that they had not been consulted about the proposed legislation, with Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir expressing bemusement at the proposal.

The Department for the Economy, under the DUP’s Simon Hamilton, plans to seek coalition partners Sinn Fein’s backing for the move.

Mr Hamilton told BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme that the plan “would in effect reduce the cost to the NI budget to zero”.

Mr Hamilton said: “I hope we would be able to get from my department a paper to the Executive in the next number of days for approval.

“It would be my hope then that we might be able to bring that to the Assembly as early as next week.”

In a statement issued last night, Sinn Fein Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir said the DUP had not contacted him.

He added: “I am bemused at the trailing in the media of a DUP plan to resolve the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) debacle when not one scrap of paper detailing this ‘plan’ has been received by the Department of Finance.

“I am alert to the dangers of allowing the person who was the architect of the RHI scheme – the DUP leader – to come up with a solution to this debacle. That is why I will ensure my officials rigorously test any plan which comes from the DUP.

“I will be guided solely by what is in the interest of the public purse.

“The DUP are in a hole and should stop digging.”

First Minister Arlene Foster has claimed measures being drawn up by Mr Hamilton could clear Stormont’s bill.

“There will be no overspend,” she said.

Mr O Muilleoir said: “Every plan produced by the Department of the Economy on this issue has been flawed.”

Mrs Foster has been under intense pressure for weeks over her handling of the RHI scandal.

All rival parties at Stormont have demanded she stand aside while her role in the affair is investigated. Mrs Foster oversaw the inception of the RHI scheme during her time as economy minister.

Senior members of Sinn Fein have warned they will exercise their power to collapse the powersharing Executive if Mrs Foster does not temporarily stand down to facilitate a probe.

If Sinn Fein follows through with that threat Northern Ireland will be facing a snap Assembly election, less than a year after the last one.

Again making clear she would not be stepping down, Mrs Foster has said the head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service and its Attorney General had drawn up terms of reference for an independent probe into the RHI.

A time frame put forward by Mrs Foster suggests that the DUP had a deal with Sinn Fein about the issue on Wednesday, December 14. That day, Jonathan Bell recorded his explosive interview with Stephen Nolan which was broadcast the following evening. The next day, December 16, Mrs Foster says that Sinn Fein abandoned the deal.

However, Sinn Fein, whose sign-off would be required, said that the proposed terms of reference were “insufficient” and insisted any probe must be time-limited and have powers to compel witnesses and subpoena evidence.

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.

Speaking during an interview with Sky News yesterday, Mrs Foster said: “Why would I stand aside? I’ve done nothing wrong.

“There hasn’t even been an investigation into this matter. The Public Accounts Committee have not finished their investigation. I want an inquiry to take place.

“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.

“Just because I’m a woman, it doesn’t mean I’m going to roll over to Sinn Fein. I’m not going to roll over to Sinn Fein. I’m not going to roll over to my political opponents.

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