Stormont’s First Minister has accused her Sinn Fein partners in government of playing a game of chicken over a green energy scheme scandal and warned she would not blink first.
Arlene Foster branded the republican party’s demand that she step down pending a preliminary investigation into her role in the affair as “ludicrous” and “nonsense”.
At the weekend, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams left little doubt that Sinn Fein will pull the plug on the powersharing institutions – likely prompting a snap election – if Mrs Foster does not temporarily stand aside.
The Democratic Unionist leader again rejected the suggestion outright.
“I take my directions from the electorate and certainly not from Sinn Fein,” she said.
In an interview with the Impartial Reporter, a local paper in her Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency, Mrs Foster issued a blunt message to Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
“If he is playing a game of chicken, if Sinn Fein 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.”
Mrs Foster, who presided over the ill-fated Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) when economy minister, has steadfastly refused to leave the stage to facilitate a probe into a scandal that has left Stormont facing a projected £490 million bill.
The fate of the current DUP/Sinn Fein administration in Belfast now hangs on the pivotal issue of whether or not she will stand down.
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, 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.
Mrs Foster has voiced support for the terms of a judge-led probe into RHI outlined by Sinn Fein, but has emphatically rejected the republican party’s prerequisite that she step aside to facilitate the preliminary stages of the probe.
The DUP leader has signalled she would also accept a full public inquiry under the terms of 2005 Inquiries Act.
But she has made clear she will not stand aside to facilitate any probe.
Mrs Foster expressed hope Sinn Fein might temper their stance, claiming they 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.
Stormont’s independent Justice Minister Claire Sugden has suggested a compromise position whereby Mrs Foster would remain in post during the preliminary stages and only step aside if the interim report found she had questions to answer.
The lack of consensus over Mrs Foster’s position during an investigation comes amid similar disagreement between the coalition partners on DUP proposals to reduce the overspend.
The DUP has claimed its plan could wipe out the £490 million cost, but Sinn Fein has heavily criticised their partners handling of the proposals.
It was originally envisaged that the Treasury would foot the bill for the RHI, but the costs spiralled well beyond London’s financial commitment.
The total RHI spend in Northern Ireland is estimated at £1,150 million over the next 20 years.
The Treasury is set to cover £660 million of that, with Stormont landed with the remaining £490 million.
The RHI issue will undoubtedly be on the agenda as DUP politicians convene at Stormont on Monday afternoon for their first weekly party meeting of the new year.
Assembly members and a number of MPs are expected to attend as Mrs Foster addresses them in private on the crisis rocking the foundations of the devolved institutions.