Updated at 9.30pm
NORTHERN IRELAND FIRST Minister Arlene Foster has said an investigation should be set up into the ongoing ‘cash for ash’ controversy.
Her statement to reporters this afternoon follows the resignation of Martin McGuinness from his role as Deputy First Minister yesterday – a move that will trigger an election unless a solution can be found in the next seven days.
An investigation into the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) should to be set up under 2005 Inquiries Act, Foster said today.
The DUP leader said she was open to discussions with other parties, including Sinn Féin, in the coming days.
The investigation should be set up quickly, she added, so it can demonstrate “that I did nothing wrong, and that my integrity is vindicated”.
Foster said she had been “disgracefully maligned in the most vicious manner” since the start of the current controversy and that it was of the “utmost importance” that the truth comes out.
However, Sinn Féin’s deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said Foster has little option but to step aside.
Speaking to reporters today, McDonald said: “The issue around Arlene specifically at this point that needs to be resolved revolves around the independent investigation in respect of the RHI. The position won’t change on either side of an election as to the need for her to stand aside.
“However, in terms of putting an executive together, of course that’s possible, but what won’t be possible is that we return to the same routine that we have faced the last number of years … For power-sharing to work, all parties need to be committed and need to understand the basic tenets of it.
You can’t have a situation where you have a power-sharing administration in which one party so clearly and so frequently sticks, pokes the other party in the eye, but – worse than that – actually sets out to dent basis democratic rights to sections of the population.
McDonald said the DUP had entered into power-sharing with Sinn Féin reluctantly and needs to show a “real” commitment to it.
Meanwhile, the Irish government confirmed that Taoiseach Enda Kenny and UK Prime Minister May spoke by phone for about 15 minutes this evening to discuss the latest developments in Northern Ireland.
A government spokesperson said: “They agreed that the situation is very serious.
They agreed that the two governments would work closely over the coming period. In particular, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, will work closely together over coming days to see if a way forward can be found before an election has to be triggered.
“The Taoiseach and Prime Minister agreed to maintain close contact ahead of Theresa May’s planned visit to Dublin at the end of January,” the spokesperson added.
Earlier, Brokenshire called for parties in the jurisdiction to work together to solve the current political impasse.
McGuinness’s departure from one of the North’s two co-equal executive roles means that the baton is now passed to Brokenshire, who must call an election next Monday unless a successor is nominated by Sinn Féin.
The party has indicated that it will not do so.
The Conservative MP stressed the seriousness of what had happened, telling parliament in London that the North was in a “grave” situation and that an election was now “highly likely”.
He also highlighted the rules of what happens now, agreed under the power-sharing deal.
An election must be held “within a reasonable period,” if no replacement candidate for McGuinness’s job is put forward, Brokenshire said.
“Once an election has been held the rules state that the assembly must meet again within one week, with a further two week period to form a new executive.
Should this not be achieved then, as things currently stand, I am obliged to call another election.
Northern Ireland politicians had earned plaudits across the globe for their ability to overcome difference and work together “for the good of the whole community,” Brokenshire said.
A solution to the current impasse would take courage and risk on all sides, he said – calling on the North’s politicians to do whatever they could to bring about a “strong, stable devolved government”.
- Explainer: What is the ‘cash for ash’ scandal? >
Speaking on today’s News at One, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said the RHI was “entirely” a DUP scheme and that the ball was now in the unionist party’s court.
He insisted Martin McGuinness’s position as Deputy First Minister was no longer tenable after Foster ignored repeated calls for her to step aside while an investigation is carried out into the scheme.
With reporting by Órla Ryan and Christina Finn