By Anthony Neeson
Martin McGuinness has once more called on Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster to step aside.
During his New Year’s message the North’s Deputy First Minister – and Mrs. Foster’s partner in government – said that Northern Ireland is facing a political crisis as public confidence in the political institutions has been “grievously undermined” by the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) debacle.
First Minister Foster and her Democratic Unionist Party have been under pressure from before the Christmas recess over the RHI scheme which could cost the taxpayer up to £490 million.
The environmentally-friendly RHI was set up by Mrs. Foster’s Enterprise department in 2012.
However, Foster is facing accusations that she didn’t act on information from a whistleblower regarding serious flaws in the scheme.
She is also facing questions regarding the setting up of the scheme, which unlike its counterpart in Britain did not have cost control measures, or a tiered system built in.
The First Minister is also at loggerheads with the man who replaced her at the department, former DUP minister Jonathan Bell, over what happened in the months leading up to the closing of the heating scheme when there was a spike in applicants.
Martin McGuinness said: “In order to address these challenges the DUP and its leader Arlene Foster need to accept there is an overwhelming desire in the community to deal with this issue and for Arlene to step aside as First Minister pending a preliminary report.
“That would allow for an independent investigation to take place, which is transparent, robust, time-framed, and led by an independent judicial figure from outside this jurisdiction appointed by the Attorney General. A rigorous process to recoup as much of the money as possible must also be put in place.
“We need to restore public confidence in the credibility of the political institutions, ensuring they deliver for the people.”
Meanwhile, as pressure mounted on Foster to step aside, the first minister launched her own counterattack by claiming that the effort to have her stand down was motivated by misogyny.
Foster said the fact she was the first woman to hold the leading position in Stormont’s power-sharing administration was 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.
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, however, was having none of it.
According to an Irish times report, Long said: “I’m surprised Arlene sees this as misogynistic as opposed to being held to account in the same manner as her male predecessor (Peter Robinson) in a previous scandal of much lesser financial importance.
“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 a 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.”
Sinn Féin minister, Michelle O’Neill, also dismissed Foster’s misogyny allegation.
“This is not a gender issue nor is it an Orange and Green issue,’ O’Neill said in a statement.
“This is about a financial scandal, which has the potential to cost the public purse hundreds of millions of pounds.
“This is about corruption and the misuse of public money in the here and now. Arlene Foster is trying to divert attention away from getting to the truth and holding those responsible to account.
“The key to this is to speedily establish an effective, independent investigation to get to the truth, which stops the loss of public money and restores confidence in the political process. Arlene Foster needs to step aside to allow that to happen.”