Northern Ireland

RHI scandal: Calls for Foster to step aside 'ludicrous'

Arlene Foster
Image caption Mrs Foster described Sinn Féin's demand that she stand aside during an investigation as 'ludicrous'

The first minister has said that if Sinn Féin is "playing a game of chicken" and expecting her to stand aside "they're wrong".

Arlene Foster said that "if there's an election, there's an election".

She described Sinn Féin's demand that she stand aside during an investigation into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme as "ludicrous".

The RHI scheme is approximately £490m over budget.

Speaking to the Impartial Reporter newspaper, Mrs Foster said: "We want to see an independent inquiry probably more than anybody".

"While others have been engaging in hysteria over Christmas I've been actually working to try and find a plan and work through all of this with my ministerial colleague Simon Hamilton," she said.

The RHI was set up by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) under the stewardship of Mrs Foster in 2012 to encourage businesses and other non-domestic users to move from using fossil fuels to renewable heating systems.

It was an attempt by the NI Executive to increase consumption of heat from renewable sources.

But flaws in setting the scheme's subsidy rate left it open to abuse as claimants could earn more cash the more fuel they burned.

'Conflict of interest'

Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams said at the weekend that the DUP leader's refusal to step aside during an investigation into the green energy scheme was "unacceptable".

He also hinted that Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness could resign if Mrs Foster remained in post.

Mr Adams suggested there was a "clear conflict of interest" if she remained.

However, the first minister described Sinn Féin's position as "a purely political demand and not one that serves any genuine purpose".

Also writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Mrs Foster said the party "demand an independent inquiry free from any political interference, but they then make the holding of it conditional on my stepping aside".

Image copyright tchara
Image caption The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is approximately £490m over budget

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster, her party colleague, Economy Minister Simon Hamilton, said that if Sinn Féin wanted an election "then we say bring it on".

"I'm saying categorically that the first minister will not be stepping down from her post, so the corollary from that is that if Sinn Féin are threatening an election then that is the more likely outcome".

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