Northern Ireland

Peter Robinson rejects Green MLA's 'sack Foster' call

Arlene Foster
Image caption The Green Party leader has accused Arlene Foster of a "lack of transparency"

First Minister Peter Robinson has rejected a demand from the Green MLA Steven Agnew that he should sack Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster.

Mr Agnew said she failed to declare her husband's ownership of 54 acres of land within a shale gas exploration zone in County Fermanagh.

He said her failure to do so before answering assembly questions broke the Stormont ministerial code.

However, Mr Robinson dismissed Mr Agnew's call.

"Let's be clear, she has never supported anybody having that particular piece of ground used for that purpose," Mr Robinson said.

"The issue is whether there is a danger in fracking or not and she has a particular view which she has stated on that subject.

"That is very different from being in a position where she is trying to push forward any interests that her husband might have."

Mrs Foster said she had no role in the granting of a licence.

She said she has absolutely nothing to hide and will declare an interest if and when that becomes appropriate.

"The exploration licences were granted by my department officials," she said.

"I have had no imput into any of the discussions or granting of licences, therefore there is no declaration to make."

Gas could potentially be extracted in Fermanagh in the future by a controversial process known as fracking.

Mr Agnew accused Mrs Foster of a "lack of transparency" and of breaking the ministerial code after a licence was granted to explore its potential in the area.

"I believe she had a moral duty to declare her husband's interests," he said.

"I personally challenged her in the assembly on a number of occasions and she did not declare her personal interests.

"In fact on one recent occasion, when I asked her a straightforward question on the impact of fracking on tourism in Fermanagh, she lambasted me for daring to question her decision-making on this issue."

'Damage done'

Sinn Fein's Phil Flanagan, who sits on the enterprise committee, said it "was not the first time such an allegation has been labelled against this minister".

"In terms of the public perception, it's clear damage has been done to the minister and her department, on the credibility of it and in terms of the perception of a lack of transparency," he added.

Mr Flanagan denied the controversy over granting a gas exploration licence was a "personal issue" between himself and the minister.

Meanwhile, the Stormont enterprise committee has invited Mrs Foster to attend a session next week to clarify newspaper allegations concerning her family's links to the shale gas exploration in Fermanagh.

The chair and deputy chair of the committee are also seeking a private discussion with the DUP minister on the issue.

DUP committee member Paul Frew expressed his concern that any meeting should not be a "platform to personally attack the minister".

However, the committee chair Alban Maginness said there was a public issue involved so the committee would not be an inappropriate forum for the minister to attend.

Mr Flanagan said that if Mrs Foster did appear before the committee he would not be "embarking on a witch hunt".

He indicated he believed it was important the matter was cleared up before the assembly discusses the broader arguments regarding hydraulic fracturing.

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