Eastwood tells Foster: “abide by the will of the people”

Arlene Foster and Colum Eastwood.
Arlene Foster and Colum Eastwood.
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SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood has called on First Minister Arlene Foster to stand aside following further revelations about the Renewable Heating Incentive scheme which will cost taxpayers over £490m.

Mr Eastwood claimed that Arlene Foster “is a First Minister who has lost the confidence of the Assembly and of the public”.

He was speaking as further information came to light relating to details of letters issued by Mrs. Foster, while Enterprise Minister, to banks endorsing and seeking support for the scheme.

Mr Eastwood said: “We now know that Arlene Foster personally wrote to banks seeking investment in the RHI scheme offering ‘guaranteed support’ which would endure ‘regardless of future reviews’. In one sentence, the First Minister outlines the critical flaw in the whole project.

“Arlene Foster’s instinctive resistance to calls for her to stand aside pending a public inquiry is understandable but it is fundamentally misguided.

“This is about more than the career of one politician. The longer the First Minister stays, the more lasting damage she does to the institutions and to faith in government.”

Mr Eastwood added: “If Arlene Foster has done nothing wrong, as she claims, then she has nothing to fear from a public inquiry with full powers to compel witnesses and evidence.

“All parties, and particularly Sinn Féin, must now clearly put on record their support for such an inquiry to uncover the truth about this fiasco.

“I am again urging the First Minister - abide by the will of the Assembly. Listen to the will of the public. Stand aside and begin to restore faith in our institutions.”

Earlier this month, the First Minister supported the need for independent investigation into the RHI scandal but vowed will remain as First Minister.

Ms Foster told an a largely vacated Assembly on December 19 that said she was not immune to the anger the issues surrounding the Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme have caused, and indeed shared it.

She added that the record showed she had always put Northern Ireland first.

“I will continue to work hard, as I have done throughout my political career, to ensure a better and more stable Northern Ireland,” she said.

Earlier Ms Foster said that no-one in government had picked up on the failings within the RHI Scheme.

The DUP leader took to the podium in the Assembly to address the house after it was recalled to discuss the fall out over the RHI scandal.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and his Sinn Fein Assembly colleagues walked out of the chamber, along with the SDLP and others, as Ms Foster got to her feet and said that for the two weeks previous there has been a “barrage” of media coverage and “hype”, adding that she wanted to “put to rest some of the myths” around the RHI scheme.

“There were shocking errors and failures in the RHI scheme”, she said, adding that these have contributed to the “perfect storm”.

“I am sorry that the initial scheme did not contain cost control measures,” she said. She said the non-domestic RHI scheme provided payments for 20 years dependant on the heat generated. This was followed by a domestic RHI scheme, which was released in 2014, and Ms Foster said she made “no apology at all” for this extension given what was known at the time.

“However bad the execution has turned out to be, the aims of the scheme were good and necessary,” Ms. Foster said. “With the greatest of respect to those who criticise me, I would remind them I did not simply impose this on the people of NI,” she said, adding that it was passed by the Assembly.

“The unfortunate reality is that no-one in government picked up on this failing,” she said.

Ms Foster said that at no time during her time as Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister did anyone indicate that cost controls should be implemented.