Arlene Foster says she won’t blink in ‘game of chicken’ with Sinn Féin

Mary Lou McDonald warns of Assembly elections if First Minister does not stand aside

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

DUP leader Arlene Foster has made clear she is prepared to see Assembly elections rather than accede to the Sinn Féin demand that she stand aside as First Minister.

As TD Mary Lou McDonald became the latest high-ranking Sinn Féin politician to demand that she step aside, Ms Foster said she would not be the one to blink first in the standoff over the cash-for-ash heating scheme.

In a message to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, she said: “If he is playing a game of chicken, if Sinn Féin are playing a game of chicken, and they think we are going to blink in relation to me stepping aside, they are wrong - I won’t be stepping aside. And if there is an election, there is an election.

“I take my directions from the electorate and certainly not from Sinn Féin,” she told her local paper, the Impartial Reporter in Enniskillen.

Ms Foster has agreed to two of Sinn Féin’s demands in relation to the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme, which it is now estimated could result in an overspend of up to £490 million (€565 million).

Overspend clawback

She has accepted the need for an investigation into the scheme and also the need to devise a system to try to claw back the estimated overspend. But again she has insisted she will not be stepping aside temporarily pending an interim report into the botched eco-friendly heating scheme.

Ms Foster expressed hope Sinn Féin might moderate its stance, saying it had done so over previous political crises. “They make all sorts of threats and make all sorts of points and then they come back to reality and we deal with the situation and we find a solution,” she said.

Sinn Féin vice-president Ms McDonald, following up on weekend warnings by party leader Gerry Adams, again indicated that elections were likely if Ms Foster did not stand aside.

She said the DUP’s “out of this world strutting on the issue” was out of touch with the public mood and anger over the RHI scheme.

Ms McDonald said the “ball was in the court” of the DUP but that if Ms Foster did not step aside, Sinn Féin “will act to protect the institutions”.

Asked on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland on Monday what that meant, she said it meant the current “situation was untenable and that we will bring that to a close”.

Further asked did that mean elections, she said: “Yes, potentially, it means precisely that.”

Ms Foster is meeting her Assembly team at Stormont on Monday afternoon to discuss the political crisis.

Critical moment

Short of any significant movement by either the DUP or Sinn Féin this week, the critical moment in this political drama will be next Monday when the Assembly on its return from its Christmas recess is due to vote on a Sinn Féin motion calling on Ms Foster to stand aside.

Regardless of the vote, the DUP has the Assembly strength to ensure the motion is defeated. In such a circumstance, Mr McGuinness will be faced with the decision of whether or not to resign and thus set in train a process that could lead to Assembly elections.

Sinn Féin, maintaining the pressure on the DUP, has now lodged a motion of no confidence in the DUP Assembly speaker Robin Newton on how he officiated over a no-confidence motion in Ms Foster on December 19th.

He was criticised by Sinn Féin and opposition parties for allowing Ms Foster to make a statement defending her position in relation to RHI.