McGuinness repeats call for Foster to stand aside over ‘cash for ash’

Sinn Féin demands judicial-led inquiry as £400m controversy threatens Stormont

Arlene Foster: the DUP rejects the idea of her standing aside, which Martin McGuinness said was what he would do in the circumstances. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

A crucial meeting of Northern politicians is being held at Stormont to address the controversy surrounding the Renewable Heat Incentive, or "cash for ash", scheme.

The Assembly has been recalled for DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster to deliver a statement on the green energy programme, the alleged mishandling of which is expected to cost the taxpayer in the North more than £400 million (€478 million).

The DUP supports an independent investigation “free from partisan political interference”, but Sinn Féin is demanding a judicial-led inquiry.

Disagreement between the coalition partners on how matters should be progressed has the potential to collapse Stormont and lead to elections next year.

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The DUP has repeatedly claimed that neither the party nor Ms Foster has anything “to hide” and rejects the idea of her standing aside, which Mr McGuinness said was what he would do in the circumstances.

The DUP has said Ms Foster would not be taking direction from Mr McGuinness, who asked her in a phone call on Friday to reflect on her position.

Political institutions

At a special meeting of the Sinn Féin leadership in Derry on Saturday Gerry Adams told members their "objective must be to defend the integrity of political institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement".

“There can be no compromise from us. If there is corruption at the heart of the institutions then that needs to be rooted out,” Mr Adams said.

The UUP has accused the DUP of having “dragged devolution into the gutter”.

The SDLP had tabled a motion of no confidence in Ms Foster to be heard on Monday calling for her exclusion for six months. This has been supported by the Ulster Unionist Party, Alliance Party, Green Party, People Before Profit and Traditional Unionist Voice.

Mr McGuinness has now called for parties to support a Sinn Féin amendment calling for the “First Minister to stand aside in order to facilitate an independent, time-framed, robust and transparent investigation and until a preliminary report is presented” four weeks from its establishment.

He said a full report would be made public three months later and would not require agreement of the First and Deputy First Ministers or the Attorney General.

Spiralling costs

Ms Foster was the minister in charge at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment when the scheme was set up in 2012.

Strangford MLA Jonathan Bell, who took over from Ms Foster at the department, alleged in an interview last week that senior DUP party figures interfered to keep it open last year despite concern about its spiralling costs.

The business of the department has now been incorporated into the new economy ministry headed by the DUP's Simon Hamilton, who has released documents he says have satisfied him that there was "no cleansing of records" and that "Mr Bell's account is seriously at variance from the facts".

Mr Bell has now been suspended from the party.

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson confirmed party officers met and that Mr Bell had been suspended without prejudice, pending a full investigation.

Mr Bell has accused Ms Foster of being “aggressive” toward him during a meeting over the controversial energy scheme and is set to sue his party leader arising from comments she made in relation to his alleged conduct and over suggestions he had “intimidated and bullied” her and other members of the DUP.

Mr Donaldson said Mr Bell broke party rules by giving a television interview without going through the DUP press office. He denied that it looked as though the party had prejudged the conflicting accounts of what happened with its move to sanction him.

He also said Opposition parties were “out to get” Ms Foster but that her focus remained minimising the financial cost to taxpayers.

The over-generous terms of the scheme, unlike the British model on which it was based, meant there was no cap on usage, so subsidies are committed to being paid out over the next 20 years well in excess of the costs of buying renewable fuel such as wood pellets.

It is claimed one farmer will receive £1 million for heating an empty shed.