Northern Ireland

RHI scandal: Belfast City Council supports call for public inquiry

Ruth Patterson
Image caption Former DUP councillor Ruth Patterson, who was expelled from the party in 2015, said the public were seriously concerned by the "financial squander" in the RHI scheme

Belfast City Council has passed a motion calling on the government to hold a full public inquiry into Stormont's 'cash-for-ash' scandal.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, set up in 2012 by the now First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster, is set to run £490m over its budget.

The motion, proposed by former DUP councillor Ruth Patterson, was passed by 23 votes in favour to 12 against.

The UK government has already rejected an Alliance call for a public inquiry.

'Financial squander'

The Treasury has refused to cover the RHI overspend and it will have to be paid from the block grant that Northern Ireland receives from Westminster.

Mrs Patterson, who was expelled from the DUP in 2015, asked her fellow councillors to note the "serious public concern amongst our constituents in relation to financial squander" over the RHI scheme.

Now an independent councillor, she proposed that Belfast City Council writes to Secretary of State James Brokenshire to request a public inquiry.

"The secretary of state has a public responsibility to initiate an inquiry regarding this," Mrs Patterson said.

"I certainly think he will listen to Belfast City Council - we are elected by the people and we certainly need to have our say in this. We are the closest, on the ground, to the people of Northern Ireland, right across the province, and everyone is talking about the same issue."

A government spokesman said it is up to the Northern Ireland Executive to decide on what form of investigation is carried out.

Mrs Patterson's motion also called on her former party leader Mrs Foster to "step aside" during the inquiry.

DUP councillor Lee Reynolds said the outcome of the vote was "predictable" and accused other parties of playing political "games".

Image caption Lee Reynolds said rival parties were more interested in "having a go at the DUP" than solving the RHI problem

"They're not interested in solving the problems with RHI, which we should be trying to move forward," Mr Reynolds told BBC News NI.

"They're not interested in getting towards an independent investigation, they're just trying to find ways of having a go at the DUP and trying to undermine the First Minister Arlene Foster."

Eighteen councillors abstained from taking part in the vote.

Sinn Féin attempted to amend Mrs Patterson's motion, this time calling not for a full public inquiry, but for an independent investigation led by a judicial figure from outside Northern Ireland, but their amendment did not attract enough support.

"We think the public want the truth, but they also want the truth as quickly as possible," said Sinn Féin councillor Jim McVeigh.

"They don't want to wait a year, or two years, like some of these public inquiries can take, so we think the best way to do this is a robust, transparent investigation that will get to the truth quickly."

The Ulster Unionist Party also proposed an amendment that called on Mrs Foster to resign, but it too failed.

Earlier on Tuesday, it was reported that the UK government has already rejected a request from Alliance Party leader Naomi Long to hold a public inquiry into the RHI scandal.

Mrs Long had written to both Mr Brokenshire and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Gauke to ask for their intervention.

A government spokesman said: "The operation of the RHI scheme is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. So it is right for the executive and the assembly to decide the form of any investigation or inquiry."

Mrs Foster has resisted calls for a public inquiry and for her to temporarily step aside while the matter is investigated.

The matter has caused a rift at the heart of the Stormont administration, with Sinn Féin threatening to call a fresh election if the first minister does not stand aside for an investigation.

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