Foster: No regrets not stepping aside as First Minister over RHI

By David Young, PA

Arlene Foster says she has no regrets over not temporarily stepping down as first minister to avoid the collapse of powersharing.

Sinn Fein pulled the plug on the devolved executive in January 2017 when Mrs Foster refused to stand aside for six weeks to facilitate an investigation into her role in a botched green energy scheme.

The late Martin McGuinness resigned in protest at her decision – a move that precipitated the powersharing crisis, which has left Northern Ireland without a functioning government for almost three years.

Asked if she regretted her stance, given what has followed, she told the PA news agency: “No I don’t, because I mean you could fill your life full of regrets about x, y and z.

“But I think when you look back at what happened at that time, it was the right decision.”

Reflecting on her four years at the helm of the DUP, Mrs Foster acknowledged it had been a “rollercoaster”, invoking the Charles Dickens line from A Tale Of Two Cities – “it was the best of times, it was with worst of times”.

“Certainly, it has been a rollercoaster and challenging at times,” she said.

“But you know, it is good to have the support of my colleagues, it’s certainly good to lead from the front.

“And we had that election, of course the last general election (2017), where we got the biggest ever vote for the Democratic Unionist Party, a wonderful endorsement, not just of the party yes, but obviously for the Union as well – a very strong statement for the Union.”

The RHI was designed to encourage businesses and farmers to switch to eco-friendly wood pellet boilers by offering a subsidy to buy the sustainable fuel.

But errors in its design meant applicants were paid more than it actually cost them to buy pellets, creating a “burn to earn” incentive which left Stormont facing a multi-million pound overspend bill.

The late Martin McGuinness quit as Stormont deputy first minister when Mrs Foster refused to stand down temporarily during the RHI scandal (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Mrs Foster was the minister in charge of the scheme during its inception and implementation.

The findings of a public inquiry, chaired by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, are anticipated to be published in the coming months.

“We have had the public inquiry now in relation to the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, we will get the public inquiry results soon,” said Mrs Foster.

“I think there’ll be a lot in there from which we will have to learn and adapt in the future.

“And I think we should take the public inquiry report and very much look at what it recommends and then move forward from there.”