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Dublin: 5 °C Monday 21 January, 2019
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Arlene Foster claims the scandal engulfing her is 'because she's a woman', so what's the truth?

The ‘cash for ash’ scandal continues to burn.

Renewable Heat Initiative allegations Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster is rejecting calls to stand aside. Source: Niall Carson

NORTHERN IRELAND’S FIRST Minister Arlene Foster has claimed that calls for her to resign are partly motivated by misogyny.

Speaking to Sky News about the controversy surrounding the so-called ‘cash for ash’ scandal, Foster said she is coming under increased pressure because she is a woman.

“A lot of it personal.  There’s a lot of it, sadly, misogynistic as well, because I’m a female, the first female leader of Northern Ireland,” she said.

Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I’m going to roll over to Sinn Féin, I’m not going to roll over to Sinn Féin, I’m not going roll over to my political opponents. I’m going to deal with the issues because that’s what the electorate want me to do.

So what is the scandal about? 

The scandal revolves around a renewable energy scheme that was established when Foster was Northern Ireland’s Minister for Enterprise.

The Renewable Heat Incentive was designed to help businesses meet the costs of installing renewable heating. Businesses were paid a flat rate for energy they used, often above what they actually needed.

It meant that businesses were paid more than they needed to be and there was perhaps a financial incentive to use extra fuel, hence the ‘cash for ash’ moniker.

BBC’s Spotlight programme uncovered evidence that whistleblowers had drawn the department’s attention to the problem but it was not acted upon. The scheme was not closed until this year and the overspend has been estimated at at least £400 million.

In a BBC NI interview, former NI minister Jonathan Bell also claimed that he was met with a hostile reaction when he informed First Minister Arlene Foster that the government energy scheme was being abused.

Renewable Heat Initiative allegations Sinn Féin have so far decided not to walk out of government. Source: Liam McBurney/PA Images

To go or not to go?

The pressure on Foster essentially stems from allegations that she was at best asleep at the wheel when this was happening and it has cost the taxpayer heavily.

Foster last month survived a no confidence motion over how she handled the concerns and every party bar her own is against her on this issue.

When she rose to speak in Stormont about the controversy last month the other parties walked out of the chamber.

Last night, Belfast City Council voted to call for a full public inquiry into the scheme and some have called for Foster to temporarily stand aside until such an inquiry is completed.

The vote by Belfast City Council came about after a proposal by former DUP member Ruth Patterson.

Foster has attempted to stir her unionist base by claiming that moves against her are being driven by Republicans. She told Sky News:

It’s not secret that in my childhood the IRA tried to murder my father. It’s no secret that in the past the IRA put a bomb on my school bus. So do I really think that I’m going to step aside at the behest of Sinn Féin? No I’m not.

Foster added that she would welcome an inquiry but insisted she would not be resigning temporarily.

“Why would I stand aside, I’ve done nothing wrong,” she said.

“There hasn’t even been an investigation into this matter, the public accounts committee have not finished their investigation. I want an inquiry to take place so we can deal with all of the transparency issues. Meanwhile Sinn Féin are on a party political mission to get me to step aside, to weaken unionism, which I will never allow to happen.”

What happens now?

A number of things could happen but at present it doesn’t seem likely that politics will continue as normal.

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Mike Nesbitt has claimed the controversy shows that the DUP and Sinn Féin cannot effectively govern as part of the Northern Ireland power-sharing executive. He said yesterday that his party would he ‘happy to fight’ an election if one was called.

The SDLP has argued that an election would distract from the actual issue and that the truth of what happened would be put on the long finger.

With Foster claiming that she has a mandate for the electorate, it doesn’t sound like she feels an election is what is required. Sinn Féin, however, could opt to pull out of government making an election virtually inevitable.

Otherwise all parties could agree that a public inquiry is the best way forward, although at present such agreement is looking hard to come by.

Read: Sinn Féin v Foster: New year, same controversy with power sharing at ‘tipping point’ >

Read: The DUP suspends former minister as the ‘ash for cash’ scandal burns on >

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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