The North’s first minister has launched a blistering attack against political rivals and the media as she defended her handling of a botched green energy scheme.
DUP leader Arlene Foster denounced opposition parties as “irrelevant and impotent” as she responded to an Assembly motion of no confidence in her.
“For almost two weeks I have listened on an almost daily basis to lies presented as facts, the truth distorted out of all recognition, and a public narrative created and relentlessly pursued which bears no relationship to reality,” she said.
All other parties in the Assembly — including the DUP’s partner in government, Sinn Féin — have called on her to stand down pending an independent probe into an error-ridden scheme that has landed the North’s taxpayers an estimated bill of £400m (€475m).
The renewable heat incentive (RHI) was due to offer a proportion of the cost businesses had to pay to run eco-friendly boilers, but it ended up paying significantly more than the cost of fuel, enabling 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 £1m in the next 20 years for heating an empty shed. Ms Foster was the minister in charge of the scheme at its inception.
Assured of the party strength to defeat the SDLP motion of no confidence, Ms Foster branded it a “kamikaze” attempt at a “constitutional coup d’etat”.
“I have to say it’s a coup d’etat more worthy of a Carry On film,” she said, adding that she would not run from her responsibilities.
“I remain as committed today as I did on the day I was elected as first minister to fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith.”
All non-DUP MLAs had earlier walked out of the chamber ahead of a statement by Ms Foster.
The bitter row unfolded after Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness withdrew his approval for Ms Foster to appear to explain her role in the RHI.
All statements by Ms Foster and Mr McGuinness’s joint office need the support of both sides of the power-sharing executive.
Mr McGuinness’s move prompted members from all parties but the DUP to question the validity of Ms Foster’s appearance.
It led to the bizarre situation of Ms Foster giving a statement to a three-quarters empty chamber and then answering questions tabled by her own members.
The majority of absent MLAs returned later for the debate on the motion of no confidence. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood tabled the proposal. Sinn Féin members did not vote on the motion and Ms Foster survived the vote.
The “cash for ash” scandal reached fever pitch last week when former DUP economy minister Jonathan Bell broke ranks to level a series of claims against his leader and party advisers. Ms Foster rejected his claims and he was suspended by the party over the weekend.
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