19/12/2016 Stormont Today


Stormont Today returns as the Assembly is recalled over the controversy surrounding the implementation of the Renewable Heat Incentive.

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Hello and welcome to a special edition of Stormont Today,


and what an extraordinary day it has been.


Recalled to hear a statement by Arlene Foster on behalf


of the Executive Office, MLAs from every party except the DUP


walked out when Martin McGuinness withdrew his consent to that


statement being made, leading to fevered talk of a crisis


And a subsequent motion of no confidence in the First Minister saw


a spirited defence mounted by DUP Members under attack


Angry scenes as the Speaker is challenged for allowing


the First Minister's statement to go ahead.


I've asked you directly under which standing order you intend to


proceed, and the fact you cannot answer forces me to ask again, where


do you have the authority? Where do you have the authority?


And Arlene Foster continues to insist she did nothing wrong.


I also want to make it clear I support the need for an independent


investigation free from partisan political interference to establish


the facts around the incentive scheme.


And helping us to make sense of it all, Professor Rick Wilford


Recalls, walkouts and a no confidence motion that stood no


It's been a day of high drama at Stormont.


The First and Deputy First Ministers may agree on the need


for further investigation into the Renewable Heating Incentive


scheme, but they remain sharply divided on Mrs Foster's role in it.


Last week it was announced that the Assembly was to be


specially recalled, so we were always braced


for spirited exchanges - and we got them in spades.


Rick, some might say today brings to mind that immortal


Conor Cruise O'Brien phrase, GUBU - "groteqsue, unbelievable,


Indeed. I think he's got it in four words there, really. I watched like


you a whole raft of episodes over the years since we've had devolution


in Northern Ireland and we had some very spirited exchanges but today


was really quite remarkable and in a class of its own. It is


unprecedented certainly. Bizarre, yes. A bit like Alice In Wonderland.


Things go down the rabbit hole and get curiouser and curiouser. Quite


frankly, I can understand the anger of some of the members in


challenging the speaker in terms of how he was awarded status to the


statement by Arlene Foster. Lots more from you throughout the


programme. Thank you for now. Well, let's see how


the day panned out - and it started with MLAs gathering


for the special statement However, it quickly became clear


that this was not how Martin McGuinness saw it,


and be aware, there's some flash I want to make it very, very clear


from my perspective and that of my party that the statement which


Arlene Foster is scheduled to make to the Assembly today does not have


my authority or approval as Deputy First Minister. She is speaking in a


personal capacity and not in her role as First Minister. First


Minister should stand aside to allow the investigation to take place in


as conducive and atmosphere as possible.


The first attempt to get proceedings going was met by a walkout.


Sinn Fein and all the other parties left the chamber when the Speaker,


Robin Newton, refused to take points of order.


He called an adjournment for half an hour, but MLAs were no more


Having taken legal and procedural advice this morning, it is clear


that my role in relation to the procedures of the Assembly, not the


procedures of the Executive, and I have discharged my responsibilities


under standing orders to recall the Assembly. She is making this


statement on behalf of herself and that you have received the


correspondence to indicate that, but is it difficult -- the convention


that on behalf of the Executive the First Minister and Deputy First


Minister are advised to make two separate statements to satisfy the


recall of the Assembly. I think having taken the legal and perceive


right eyes this morning, it is clear that my role in relation to the


procedures of the Assembly, not the procedures of the Executive, and


that I have discharged my responsibilities in line with


standing orders to recall the Assembly. -- legal and procedural. I


ask you under which standing order you intend to proceed, and the fact


you cannot answer forces me to ask again, specifically which standing


order of the operating on, then? -- are we operating? I suppose we are


coming close to you challenging the chair's decisions. Where do you have


the authority to say to the Executive office, make two


statements?! You have a duty to explain that to the House, the


people of Northern Ireland and all those who endorsed the Good Friday


agreement. You've made yourself quite clear but I have discharged my


responsibilities under the standing orders to recall the Assembly. The


order paper decrees that we are hearing a ministerial statement. I


presume the order paper is administered under your direction?


Can you therefore indicate how this can be a ministerial statement from


the Executive office since once half of that office has withdrawn? Isn't


it the case that what ought to happen now is we should proceed as


quickly as it can be arranged procedurally and in relation to the


president to an election to this House? Because it's perfectly clear


that it does not operate as intended, it is not operating in a


way that serves the interests of the people of Northern Ireland and


procedurally it seems we are now in La La land and limbo land. Please


can we stop this charade! At what stage we going to let the First


Minister speak, giving you have outlined that you have taken


procedural advice and taken legal advice? At what point are we going


to proceed to hear the statement many people from outside of this


chamber actually want to hear from the First Minister? She no longer


has the confidence of the Deputy First Minister in making this


statement and it is my belief that you need to advise the House under


what standing order you are allowing this unusual arrangement to proceed,


if that was your decision. I am grateful to you for agreeing to


recall the Assembly today and permitting me to make the time and a


statement about my role in the renewables incentive scheme. Unlike


the normal practice, which, by the way, you endorsed, I want to make it


clear this statement has not been cleared or approved...


And as the First Minister began her statement,


Members from the other parties promptly left the chamber.


Rick, Members were clearly exasperated with the line


taken by the Speaker throughout those exchanges.


Not just exhaust rated but utterly confused. I think the speaker and


his officials in his office have tried post Hoch, as it were, to


dance on the head of a procedural pain, and that is because the


original request for the statement to be recalled was made. --


procedural pain. Clearly statements have been made in the past few days


about what it might or might not contain. It was said, I am not


prepared to stand without. So the speaker was put into the invidious


position where having received a request to summon the Assembly on a


joint basis, then proceeding as though that's still applied, where


in fact it didn't. So although the office, and certainly Arlene Foster


herself must have believed she was being First Minister, but it could


only be understood as a personal statement as the head of the DUP,


not as First Minister. The fact that he, as the speaker, was doing it as


a piece of politeness rather than a piece of procedure on the role she


performed. She says it was unclear or approved by the Deputy First


Minister but at no point does she say it is a personal statement. No,


I think had she said that it would have allayed any confusion felt by


members in the chamber, and they're clearly were very confused members


and they were very angry, and quite rightly, because it is not a


precious point, it's an important operational principle of an


institution, the Executive, that things are jointly exercised. Going


ahead on this basis, a unilateral basis, flies in the face of that


principle. And therefore it's no wonder that the other parties in the


chamber were actually very cross indeed, and I think quite rightly so


it was not allowed to proceed on that basis.


The Speaker took the unprecedented step of writing to MLAs this


afternoon to explain how he'd made his decisions about this


Various figures, among them Mike Nesbitt, Jim Allister


and Eamonn McCann, went on to suggest to the media


in the Great Hall that the Speaker's position is "very close


Well, of course, for those critics, they have been in quite recent form.


I don't think untenable but it has made things much more difficult.


Now, thank you. Extraordinary scenes,


and we haven't even heard So, finally, Arlene Foster got


to make her statement on the renewables scheme


at the centre of the controversy, albeit to a smaller audience


than she might have expected. It lasted almost half an hour


but here are some of the highlights. I want to make it clear this


statement has not been cleared or approved by the Deputy First


Minister. I felt it was important I came before the House at the


earliest opportunity. For almost two weeks they has been a barrage of


media coverage on this matter, including wild claims and


allegations, many of which have been based on spin rather than reality.


-- there has been. I want to give the actual facts to the Assembly. To


repeat what I've said in media interviews, I also want to make it


clear that in order to get to the bottom of this entire issue, I am


prepared to waive the normal conventions and give evidence to the


Public Accounts Committee. The one thing we can all agree on is that


there were shocking errors in the scheme and a catalogue of mistakes


all of which coincided to create the perfect storm, resulting in the


position in which we now find ourselves. In all of this it is


critical lessons are learned and that the costs of the scheme are


brought under control. I'm sorry that the initial scheme did not


contain cost control measures and that there were fundamental flaws in


the design. This is the deepest political regret of my time in this


House. As minister, I accept responsibility for the work of the


department during my time at DETI. Once again, for the avoidance of


doubt, I feel it is right and proper I answer to this Assembly it about


my role in the scheme, and not for one moment do I seek to shirk or


skirt around that responsibility. But if we are to learn lessons from


this entire experience, it is essential we know exactly where


things went wrong. One question asked by many is why we did not


simply replicate the Great Britain arrangements into Northern Ireland.


The answer is quite simple. In Great Britain, the main obstacle to the


growth of renewable heat was and is the wide availability of affordable


natural gas. Here, the main heating fuel is oil and gas market is


relatively immature. It was even more so in 2012. Hence it is clear


that to simply import the arrangement would not have been


appropriate at that time. Well this statement is not the place to


rehearse every feeling or flaw in the process, there is one matter I


believe it is important I addressed. Because it is this error that goes


to the very heart of why the costs of the scheme ran out of control.


The crucial mistake in scheme was that the tariff for the most


commonly used boilers, small to medium biomass, was set at a level


higher than the market price of the relevant fuel, namely wood pellets.


In essence, this created an incentive to continue to benefit


your oval and above the levels required for the relevant functions.


-- to continue to burn the fuel. I would remind I did not simply impose


this scheme on the people of Northern Ireland. The tariff was set


out in schedule 3 and was scrutinised by the investment


committee and passed after debate by the Northern Ireland Assembly, and


indeed the chair of the committee said, and I quote, the committee's


scrutiny of the development has been considerable and reflects the


importance and long-term nature of the proposals. Before supporting the


RHI, the committee sought and received insurances on incentive and


tariff levels, incentives for domestic consumers, payments to


participants and support levels for the renewable payment he scheme. The


unfortunate reality is nobody in government or in this Assembly in


their work creating a passing this legislation picked up on this


crucial failing. Mrs Foster then moved on to two


major figures in this whole saga - the whistleblower who attempted


to alert her then department to flaws in the heating scheme,


and her former colleague, She turned first


to the whistleblower. The BBC's Spotlight programme and


comment has neared play of a concerned citizen and I would ask


the entire assembly to join me in thanking a person for all she did to


try and prevent the calamity we have fallen into. She deserves our


highest respect and a sincere apology on behalf of my former


department which should not have dismissed claims with disbelief but


examined them with diligence. It is no exaggeration to say that had she


been listened to on any of the three occasions when she approached DETI,


the crisis would have been avoided. Unfortunately it has been difficult


to establish the exact facts around contact between the concerned


citizen and myself in the department. When I asked by


Spotlight about the concerned citizen, I said I pass them onto


officials to investigate and it is now obvious that these investigation


should have highlighted the failings of the scheme and action should have


been taken. I made this statement from memory and an advice appeared


to indicate that she raised concerns with me directly. This is my normal


and the appropriate practice to pass any concerns received from members


of the public to the relevant officials. However, my response was


made without the benefit of having reviewed the original letter. It is


now clear that the initial communication to me did not raise


concerns with the RHI scheme and I understood from the Department of


the economy officials who have spoken to the person that this was


the only correspondence sent directly to me. A subsequent e-mail


to my private account the following week has now come to light in which


there are references to concerns about the scheme. Since the


announcement of my decision to make the statement, the former minister


has given an interview to the BBC and he makes a number of allegations


in relation to the decision to amend and subsequently close the scheme. I


think that it is important that I also take this opportunity to put on


record the factual position in relation to a number of those


allegations. Mr Bell alleged on several occasions that he took


action immediately to introduce cost control measures into the scheme and


signed off the submission at the most immediate point that he could.


This is untrue. Mr Bell further claims that other SPADs became


involved in the process who were not allowing the scheme to close. The


fact remains that the Minister signed off a proposal which was to


take effect from the 4th of November, 2015. The only further


delay in the introduction of cost-control measures was as a


result of legal and financial issues are being resolved by departmental


officials and which were unconnected to any ministerial decision. This is


not an exhaustive rebuttal of the allegations made by Mr Bell but I


hope will convey with documentary evidence of what happened. I also


want to make clear that I support the need for an independent


investigation, free from partisan political interference to establish


the facts around the Isles of Sheppy. This must be made public and


any investigation must be conducted speedily to assist in building


public confidence --. RHI. It's likely, then, that we will see


an inquiry in the New Year, but any fears that the institutions


were under real threat because of today's events seemed


to be allayed when Martin McGuinness gave an interview to my


colleague Mark Devenport. The Deputy First Minister says he's


more interested in repairing any financial damage the flawed


scheme has caused. We need a robust, independent


investigation into the biggest financial scandal any bus have


witnessed in a long time regarding the RHI scheme. We need a credible


working relationship between Simon Hamilton and Martina Willey in order


that we cut back on the money which potentially we could lose over the


course of the next two decades and of course, in my conversation with


Arlene Foster, a number of days ago, outlined, not an instruction, but


what I would do if I was in a similar circumstance -- Mairtin O'


Mueillor. That was to accept a robust investigation and that I


would stand aside for what I think would be a short period to allow the


investigation to report. Arlene Foster made it clear that she was


not standing aside and she went ahead with this statement, has that


damage the joint nature of your office? My concern about the


statement and the staters of the statement would have been, if there


had been anything in the statement that indicated an action, on behalf


of herself, either as leader of the DUP or, depending on her thinking,


as First Minister, that would have brought us to a major crisis. In the


event, none of that happened. Gerry Adams said in a speech on Saturday


that your health issues were making the handling of this more


problematic, what can you share with us about your health at the moment?


I am being attended to by a wonderful group of doctors and


nurses from our health service and I think that is all I need to say


about it at the moment. Is it the kind of thing where you can come


back to work, you're confident you will be able to come back to work?


We made it clear from the very beginning, when they issued the


statement explaining the circumstances of China that I was


continuing with my ministerial duties and anyone who has seen me


recently and today can see that I am doing that.


Martin McGuinness talking to Mark Devenport.


What is Sinn Fein's strategy in all of this?


Is the party endeavouring to position itself in the hope


They are leaving some concessions and other policy areas. I think they


are determined, as they see themselves, Sinn Fein that is, as


the defenders of the institution, to ensure that would ever investigation


or enquiry is undertaken, is actually seem to be robust and is


fully transparent. There is a real difference between an investigation


which is what the DUP one, which suggests to me, and in-house


investigation by officials, which is what Sinn Fein is asking. Those


things are very far apart. They are and the judge led enquiry would have


many more powers and would be much more forensic in its approach and it


would be external to the Assembly and all the other institutions.


There is one point worth acknowledging as a result, whether


it is an investigation, or a full-fledged enquiry, in opting for


an enquiry or some kind of investigation, it actually says we


do not have any confidence in the Public Accounts Committee of the


Assembly, it pulls the rug from underneath its authority. Just a


quick word about the performance of Arlene Foster. Did she flirt with


humility as one commentator said in advance of her statement, that you


very much needed to do? I agree with that. I thought a prime requirement


for Arlene Foster is that she should take a big helping of humble pie and


she didn't, she was quite abrasive and non-conciliatory and competent.


We had come to expect that from her, ordinarily, but this is not an


ordinary situation. This is an extraordinary situation and the


public is justifiably very cross about this. I would have thought


that humility would have been one of the strap line of her approach, but


it was not there. Thank you. The other big discussion


point today, of course, was an SDLP motion of no confidence


in the First Minister. It was never going to pass as it


required cross-community support, but it did give Members a chance


to voice their concerns about Arlene Foster and for her


party colleagues to speak up Today members were expecting to


scrutinise the draft budget from the Finance Minister. Yet we meet today


to discuss the career of one individual. During the week, there


was confusion at whether an Executive Office press release was


actually a DUP press release, today we are informed that the First


Minister is speaking without the authority of her joint office. All


of this is because the DUP leader will not do the decent thing, the


dignified thing and step aside. We can't go on like this. The longer


the First Minister clings on, the more her credibility will fade and


let me assure the First Minister, Christmas will not save her. The RHI


to be fully investigated and understood and understood and that


is what will happen. We need to know exactly what went wrong and how we


are going to fix it. What does not serve the people of Northern Ireland


well are those who seek to play cheap political points. I know


Christmas is coming, but the attempt to turn this issue into a political


pantomime is it a version and a distraction from the important work


that is going on. This motion turns what has been a very serious issue


into low farce. I am ready and willing to go to the Public Accounts


Committee. I have made that clear. But by magic, that is not good


enough, they will be out before I get near the committee before I get


asked a single question or even open my mouth. So much for due process,


so much for justice, so much for the facts. While I might have little


sympathy for Jonathan Bell in many things, he was clearly handed a pass


if ever there was one. Yet there is no minister who is responsible. It


is all the fault of the officials, it was someone else, it was the


previous minister. The responsibility, the accountability


and need to atone for this disaster lies with only one person. The First


Minister was called on today to voluntarily stepped down and allow


an investigation to take place without prejudice. I said that last


week and they say it again now, to put the integrity of office against


the interests of a party. She still has time to do so. The previous


First Minister stood aside in order to allow investigation into a ?50


million land deal. ?50,000 land deal pales into insignificance in


comparison to what we are dealing with here. I'm embarrassed standing


here listening to the debate and the debate that has happened so far.


You're losing the run of yourselves. This issue is about public


confidence. The previous Speaker talked about how the Executive has


delivered in the last number of months and it has delivered on many


fronts, but every action and delivery that has happened to date


has been overshadowed by the fact that the DUP cannot accept that as


leader needs to stand aside to make sure there is a full investigation


into the issues which have been played out, drip fed into the public


either for the last number of weeks. I'm not interested in the internal


wrangling of the DUP, get mother, fight among yourselves. The First


Minister said arrogantly that she has nothing to hide but she


certainly does. She was the architect of this whole scheme and


she intervened on several occasions to keep it in operation, despite


warnings from senior civil servants and others about the scheme. This


isn't some administrative air or something that she can pass the buck


on -- error. Nowhere else in the world would politicians be allowed


to get away with theirs and her position is untenable. I will not be


supporting the motion tabled by the opposition because I believe it to


be premature. You're asking me to support a motion that excludes the


First Minister on the basis of no confidence. My confidence in the


First Minister or lack of confidence in the First Minister will be based


on unsubstantiated information, not allegations manifested in the media,


particularly as Justice Minister, it would be remiss of me to pass


judgment without a full hearing. No court in the land would do so. Mrs


Foster says this is a Tobacco, the Oxford dictionary defines that as a


supplement and ignominious failure. It is a story about confidence,


ineptitude and powerlessness. We will now vote, those who go that way


are voting for a career, those who go that way are voting for the


integrity of these institutions. When it came to it, Sinn Fein


didn't turn up to vote, despite taking part in the debate,


and, as expected, the motion fell. Has Arlene Foster managed to lance


the boil, for now at least? I think she has put a sticking


plaster, but if you like to use at theatrical metaphor, this was a


prologue to the main proceedings, which is the form that some kind of


enquiry or investigation will take. That is the centrepiece of this. My


own preference would be for a formal judge led enquiry, I figure would be


more frantic and it could be done efficiently. She has not put an end


to this, this is just the overture. How wounded do you think she has


been by the last week to ten days? I do not think there is any question


other than she has been damaged, don't forget, this is a party which


prides itself on physical conservatism and here have a party


now at the centre of an enormous controversy over the potential


overcommitment of ?400 million of taxpayers money. Not only is her


personal reputation damage, and it was not helped today by her lack of


humility, the party image has been damaged as well. Just finally and


briefly, how damage do you think the key relationship at the heart of


government in Northern Ireland, that relationship between the DUP and


Sinn Fein? The default position of that relationship has always been


one of mutual mistrust and suspicion, it is at best and on


civil partnership, it is not a happy marriage, this will not have helped,


but no doubt, I suspect what will happen in the fullness of time is


that they will muddle through. We have proven very adept at muddling


through in Northern Ireland and I suspect this is how this will end up


as well. Thank you. That's it from this special


edition of Stormont Today. We'll be back in January,


but until then, from everyone You only grow old once,


so you might as well enjoy it.


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