Sinn Fein has issued repeated warnings that the Six County institutions are now at a “defining point” after the unionist First Minister Arlene Foster again refused to step down over allegations that she and her Democratic Unionist Party orchestrated the enrichment of insiders, supporters and party donors through a bogus ‘green energy’ scheme.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams spoke out after the DUP leader again refused to vacate the first minister’s office while an investigation takes place into her oversight of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). Her partner in office, Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness also warned of “grave consequences” if the First Minister failed to jointly address the allegations raised by former DUP Minister Jonathan Bell.
Mr Adams’s comments reflected broad criticism among Sinn Fein supporters of the DUP’s record in government after a series of corruption and spending scandals and their repeated veto of progressive political change. He said Foster could not help but be aware of how her insistence on remaining in office was damaging public confidence.
The assembly is to debate Sinn Fein’s motion on the RHI on Monday January 16, where a call for Mrs Foster to step aside will be repeated.
“But whatever the outcome of that debate, the reality is that the political institutions have reached a defining point,” Mr Adams stated. “Neither the public nor Sinn Fein can continue to countenance the manner in which the DUP conduct business within the executive and the assembly.”
The state-funded RHI scheme was ostensibly to subsidise the cost businesses and farms had to pay to run eco-friendly boilers, but the monies paid were extravagant and unlimited, enabling clued-up applicants to “burn to earn” - getting free heat and making a profit as they did it.
Allegations of serious abuse include a farmer set to pocket around a million pounds in the next two decades for heating an empty shed. Some recipients have already been linked to the DUP, most recently a Free Presbyterian Church which includes a former DUP Minister among its elders.
Large farmers, who represent the vast majority of beneficiaries, are a demographic long associated with the DUP. Those farmers who benefited have been advised by the Ulster Famers Union to remain silent on the deal, while the DUP has rejected renewed calls to identify party donors.
Mr Adams claimed the immediate crisis could be resolved but it would require Arlene Foster to do what former DUP leader Peter Robinson did previously over a family payments scandal.
“She should step aside to facilitate an independent process which gets to the facts of the RHI scandal effectively and quickly,” he said. “This is a straight forward case. The first minister has been in office for a relatively short time. If she wants to continue in that office she needs to do the right thing.”
The SF leader said his party had kept faith with the Stormont institutions and that over the past ten years the party’s assembly team had navigated its way through a “number of crises and scandals”. He said a lot of good work had been done on many issues, including on cross border and all-Ireland matters.
But he said there had been little or no progress on other issues.
“I’m thinking here of the long standing absence of a bill of rights,” he said. “There has also been a shameful lack of respect accorded to the Irish language and to those citizens who wish to live their lives through Gaeilge... the reprehensible decision on the eve of Christmas to cut funding for the Liofa programme is just one example of this.”
Other issues Mr Adams highlighted as reflecting badly on the DUP included the reneging on a commitment to build a peace centre at on the former Long Kesh site, the DUP’s opposition to legacy and truth recovery mechanisms, and a separate billion-pound corruption scandal over the sale of the NAMA property portfolio in the Six Counties, which Mr Adams described as a “debacle”.
With Martin McGuinness still reportedly unwell, there are low expectations that the matter will be resolved at Stormont. Before Christmas, the Assembly witnessed a pantomime in the chamber after which Foster mocked her political opponents as “impotent”. This week she accused them of “misogyny” and working to undermine her because she is a “strong” unionist leader, allegations which elicited only dismay and disgust.
Meanwhile, the revelations have continued, including that Foster wrote to banks in support of loans to RHI scheme applications, and that she changed legislation to allow even more claimants into the scheme after it became known that the costs were spiralling out of control.
Claims by the DUP’s Economy Minister Simon Hamilton to now have proposals to reduce this cost, which some estimates have said could total over a billion pounds, were dismissed as a “sticking plaster” by Sinn Fein Finance minister Mairtin O Muilleoir.
Mr O Muilleoir said Sinn Fein and the public had been “played for fools” and also warned that if Foster does not step aside during an investigation then the assembly could fall.
“In the history of the [Six County] state there has never been as dreadful a financial disaster as this one. If she doesn’t stand aside, I think there is no future for these institutions,” he said.
Many commentators are now predicting a collapse of the institutions and another election, less than a year after the last one, although there is little expectation that the rigid power dynamics of Stormont will change dramatically.
DUP MP Gregory Campbell said that if Sinn Fein want an election, then they will face it head on. “I don’t know that it will resolve anything but we certainly won’t be afraid and we won’t walk away from it,” he said.
While all sides have backed calls for some kind of inquiry or investigation, those details have also became highly controversial, with claims that there is internal conflict within Sinn Fein over the issue and allegations that they may have something to hide themselves.
Sinn Fein party chairman Declan Kearney originally called for “a time-framed, comprehensive, independent public inquiry led by an international jurist”. The party later issued a second statement amending that demand to a “comprehensive, independent investigation”.
A motion for a full public inquiry under the Inquiries Act was passed by Belfast City Council on Tuesday night, with Sinn Fein abstaining on the issue. and the DUP opposed.
The DUP has insisted that Ms Foster is happy to have an “independent [private] inquiry” into the RHI scheme, while the SDLP has said Sinn Fein was in disarray after backing down on the need for a public inquiry.
Pointing to the uncertainty, People Before Profit have said they are looking forward to an election. West Belfast Assembly member Gerry Carroll called for a “riot at the ballot box” and that his party plan to make an “audacious intervention” into the election, should one be called.
Saoradh has called for the Assembly to be scrapped entirely. “Arlene must go. Martin must go,’ they said. “But so too should their beloved institutions that also house PBP, the Greens, Alliance, the SDLP and UUP. They all must go. Because saying Stormont isn’t working anymore isn’t the answer.”