Northern Ireland

Foster shouldn't be FM 'until cleared on RHI' - O'Neill

The DUP leader Arlene Foster was enterprise minister when she set up the botched RHI scheme in 2012 Image copyright Niall Carson
Image caption The DUP leader Arlene Foster was enterprise minister when she set up the botched RHI scheme in 2012

Arlene Foster should not become first minister in a future executive until cleared by an inquiry into a botched energy scheme, says Michelle O'Neill.

Sinn Fein's northern leader told Inside Politics: "Any right minded person shouldn't put themselves forward for a position in an Executive which is obviously subject to an investigation.

"Arlene Foster was the architect of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme."

The flawed scheme may cost NI taxpayers as much as £490m.

The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was set up in 2012, intended to increase the creation of heat from renewable sources.

However, businesses have been receiving more in subsidies than they are paying for renewable fuel and the scheme became highly oversubscribed.

"The DUP signed sealed and delivered the RHI scheme, so clearly the right thing to do would be not to put themselves forward into a position in the Executive whilst an investigation is ongoing," said Mrs O'Neill.

Her predecessor Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister last month because the DUP leader refused to stand down temporarily while an interim investigation was conducted.

According to Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, the judge who is chairing the public inquiry into the affair, Sir Patrick Coghlin, has indicated he believes it would "not be appropriate to issue an interim report".

There is no definite timescale for Judge Coghlin's inquiry, but the Minister told the Assembly he thought the inquiry might take about six months.

Mrs O'Neill was pressed on whether her position meant Sinn Fein would refuse to share power with the DUP if it puts Arlene Foster forward for the First Minister's job while Judge Coghlin's inquiry is still in progress.

Image caption Michelle O'Neill has said she does not believe the public want to see US President Donald Trump in Northern Ireland

Sinn Fein's northern leader said this would have to be discussed in any negotiations after the election.

Mrs O'Neill defended herself against criticism that the Stormont agriculture department ran more than 50 seminars advertising the benefits of the RHI scheme when she was agriculture minister.

She insisted she had "no hand in the design or the administration of the RHI scheme" and promoted it "in good faith" at a stage when no concerns had been raised.

She claimed the focus on the seminars was part of DUP "antics" trying to deflect attention from their responsibility for the scheme.

Questioned about Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster's joint invitation to the US President Donald Trump to visit Northern Ireland, Mrs O'Neill said she didn't think the public would want to see such a visit, due to his "appalling policy decisions".

She described the invitation signed by Mr McGuinness as "a routine bit of business that any Executive would do".

Sinn Fein's northern leader confirmed she would not go to President Trump's White House St Patrick's Day reception, because her priority would be on the negotiations at home.

Asked if that applied to all her party's representatives, Mrs O'Neill said: "There is no invitation to any Sinn Fein representative at this moment in time".

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