Sinn Fein using RHI scandal to win political concessions, says Sammy Wilson

DUP MP 'Sammy Wilson
DUP MP 'Sammy Wilson

Sinn Fein is intent on using the scandal over a botched renewable energy scheme to extract wider political concessions from Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster, a senior party colleague has claimed.

Democratic Unionist MP Sammy Wilson also accused Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams of exploiting the “cash for ash” crisis to deflect from his own political difficulties in the Irish Republic.

Mr Wilson said problems with the ill-fated Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) were serious, but the East Antrim MP insisted they were not of the gravity to prompt resignations or a “constitutional crisis”.

At the weekend, Mr Adams made clear Sinn Fein would not back down from its demand for DUP leader Mrs Foster to stand aside to allow a probe into her role in the RHI.

Mr Adams left little doubt that Sinn Fein will pull the plug on the institutions - likely prompting a snap election - if Mrs Foster does not temporarily step down.

Mrs Foster, who presided over the RHI when economy minister, has steadfastly refused to leave the stage to facilitate a probe into a scandal that has left Stormont facing a £490 million bill.

Mr Wilson, a former Stormont minister, questioned the motivation behind Sinn Fein’s stance. He suggested Mr Adams, a member of the Irish parliament, wanted to take the heat off himself in respect of recent criticism levelled at him by Austin Stack, the son of an Irish prison guard murdered by the IRA during the Troubles.

He also accused Sinn Fein of ramping up the RHI issue as a means to gain DUP concessions on issues such as state protections for the Irish language in Northern Ireland.

“This is more designed to take the attention off Gerry Adams’s own difficulties and or put a wee bit of pressure on for some other concessions which no doubt will emerge during the week,” he said.

“Sinn Fein are masters of this - it’s first of all to embarrass their coalition partners but more importantly as a lead up to demand some sort of concession for laying off.”

The fate of the current DUP/Sinn Fein administration in Belfast now hangs on the pivotal issue of whether or not Mrs Foster will stand down.

On Friday she voiced support for the terms of a judge-led probe into RHI outlined by her Sinn Fein partners in government, but she again emphatically rejected the republican party’s prerequisite that she step aside to facilitate the preliminary stages of the probe.

Stormont’s independent Justice Minister Claire Sugden has suggested a compromise position whereby Mrs Foster would remain in post during the preliminary stages and only step aside if the interim report found she had questions to answer. It remained unclear on Sunday whether either the DUP or Sinn Fein would agree to that suggestion.

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, 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.

In a speech in Belfast on Saturday, Mr Adams said: “If the First Minister does not take the actions that society desires and deserves and which a sustainable process of change requires, then Sinn Fein will bring this ongoing and totally unacceptable state of affairs to an end.”

In further comments in Limerick on Sunday, the Sinn Fein leader insisted Mrs Foster standing down, without prejudice, was a “reasonable request”.

Mr Wilson said there were no grounds for his leader to step aside.

The lack of consensus over the form of an investigation comes amid similar disagreement on DUP proposals to reduce the overspend. The DUP has claimed its proposals could wipe out the bill, but Sinn Fein have rubbished them.

Mr Wilson said the DUP’s political rivals were intent on pulling down the institutions at a time when his leader was trying to offer a solution.

He claimed politicians who took that approach were more likely to be punished by the electorate than his party.

“Here is Arlene Foster going to come with a solution to the overspend - the other parties reject it, they bring the Assembly down, they cause another expensive election in the middle of the winter time, and they are probably going to have to go back to the same solution as she was suggesting anyway.

“I can’t predict how the public will react in a situation like that but I suspect there might be more sympathy for the people who tried to avoid the election rather than those who caused it.”

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.