Northern Ireland’s First Minister has claimed calls for her to stand down over her role in a botched green energy scheme are motivated by misogyny.
Arlene Foster said the fact she is the first female to hold the leading position in Stormont's power-sharing administration is an issue with many of those demanding she step aside.
“A lot of it is personal, a lot of it sadly is misogynistic as well because I am a female — the first female leader of Northern Ireland — so I firmly believe that is the case as well,” she said.
The Democratic Unionist leader has been under intense pressure for weeks amid a furore about an eco-friendly initiative that has left Stormont facing an overspend bill of around £490 million (€575m).
All rival parties at Stormont have demanded she stand aside while her role in the scandal is investigated. Ms Foster oversaw the inception of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme during her time as economy minister.
Alliance party leader Naomi Long, one of Mrs Foster’s most trenchant critics, questioned her claims of misogyny. She pointed out that former DUP first minister Peter Robinson stood aside in response to previous crises at Stormont.
“I’m surprised Arlene sees this as misogynistic as opposed to being held to account in the same manner as her male predecessor in a previous scandal of much lesser financial importance,” she said.
“It is particularly surprising from a woman who has been a member of two political parties with atrocious records on the promotion of women within their ranks, Arlene being a notable exception, and who joined the DUP at at time when members of the party deemed it acceptable to moo at members of the Women’s Coalition and other female elected representatives in debates.
“There is misogyny and sexism in politics, just as there is bullying, but it’s a dangerous game to misrepresent being held accountable for your actions as any of those things.”
SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon said the issue was about “incompetence”, not gender.
“This has absolutely nothing to do with Arlene Foster being a woman or her being a unionist,” she said.
While many of Mrs Foster’s critics are men, a number of leading female politicians at Stormont have also heavily criticised her handling of the affair, among them Ms Long and Sinn Féin health minister Michelle O’Neill.
Collapse of Stormont
Sinn Féin, the DUP’s partner in government, has warned they will exercise their power to collapse the Stormont Executive if Mrs Foster does not temporarily stand down to facilitate a probe. If the republican party follows through with that threat Northern Ireland will be facing a snap Assembly election, less than a year after the last one.
The state-funded RHI was supposed to offer a proportion of the cost businesses had to pay to run eco-friendly boilers, but the subsidy tariffs were set too high, and without a cap, so it ended up paying out significantly more than the price of fuel.
This enabled applicants to “burn to earn” — getting free heat and making a profit as they did it.
Claims of widespread abuse include a farmer allegedly set to pocket around £1 million in the next two decades for heating an empty shed.
Highlighting her first-hand experience of violence during the Troubles, Mrs Foster insisted she had been through much worse in her life and made clear she was going nowhere.
“I have come through a lot worse than venomous attacks from my political opponents and I intend to continue to lead,” she told Sky News.
“It’s no secret that during 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 I am going to step aside at the behest of Sinn Féin? No I am not.
“I am here because the electorate put me into this position. I take the responsibility very, very seriously and intend to see it through.”
Asked if temporarily leaving her post was preferable to an election, Mrs Foster said: “Why would I stand aside, because I have done nothing wrong? There hasn’t even been an investigation into this matter.
“The (Assembly’s) Public Accounts Committee has not finished their investigation. I want an inquiry to take place so that 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.
“Simply because I am a woman doesn’t mean I am going to roll over to Sinn Féin - I am not going to roll over to Sinn Féin, I am not going to roll over to my political opponents.
“I am going to deal with the issues in front of me because that’s what the electorate want me to do.”
In a further media interview, Mrs Foster cited health problems being experienced by Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness as another factor.
Mr McGuinness recently cancelled a trip to China on health grounds.
Mrs Foster said Sinn Féin was in “inner turmoil”.
"The Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, is not well and there seems to be some jockeying for position internally," she told the Belfast Telegraph.
“They think this is an opportunity to weaken unionism, but, speaking to ordinary unionists across the province, they tell me we are the party that speaks for them.”
The DUP leader also claimed that plans being drawn up by current DUP economy minister Simon Hamilton could wipe out the overspend Bill.
“A lot has been made about the potential overspend,” she said.
“I want to make sure that doesn’t happen. We plan to bring that potential cost down to zero. There will be no overspend.”
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly branded Mrs Foster’s claims of misogyny as “ludicrous”.
“If £400 million and more goes up in flames, it’s reasonable to require the minister involved to stand down,” he said.
Mr Kelly added: “The DUP playing the sexist/misogyny card is brass-neckery at its worst.”
Meanwhile on Tuesday Belfast City Council has agreed to call for a full public inquiry into the botched RHI scheme.
Following a lengthy debate on Tuesday night, 23 councillors voted in favour of a motion for a public inquiry, 12 voted against and 18 abstained.
Additional reporting: PA