Leader comment: Foster should take responsibility and go

Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in protest at the Democratic Unionist Party's handling of a botched renewable energy scheme. Picture:  Jeff Spicer/PA Wire

Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in protest at the Democratic Unionist Party's handling of a botched renewable energy scheme. Picture: Jeff Spicer/PA Wire

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The Hollywood script writers are presumably already at work. The Northern Irish Renewable Heating Initiative will be comedy gold for the box office, featuring Government errors, farmers paid a million pounds over 20 years to heat empty barns, workers sweltering in over-heated factories that previously were not heated but under this scheme, it earned the owners more money if they were. But unfortunately it is no joke.

Martin McGuinness has been accused of simply wanting to make the crisis worse by resigning and forcing an election, but the fact is there is an important point of principle in all this. And it is a point of principle that has been widely ignored in UK politics, and politics elsewhere, and has contributed to the disaffection of the public for politicians. It is an issue concerning accountability.

In the reports of the cost of the botched scheme, the cost to the taxpayer is often quoted as around the £400 million mark, but that is only the cost to the Northern Irish taxpayer. The actual cost over 20 years will be close to £1 billion, and it is the Treasury, or more accurately the UK taxpayer, who will be making up the £600m difference.

And rather ominously, the country’s economy minister Simon Hamilton said he and the first minister Arlene Foster are working on a plan that will reduce the cost to Northern Ireland taxpayers. That sounds like some more of the cost might shift on to UK taxpayers.

Subsidies to encourage people to use renewable energy sources are not new, and schemes to encourage such energy to be used in heating also happen elsewhere. But the one in Northern Ireland had two very fundamental errors. The first was the level of the subsidy, which meant that people were getting more to burn the fuel than they were paying to buy the fuel, which meant the more they burned, the more profit they made.

The second was that there was no upper limit placed on the spending from the scheme. It took a while to catch on but towards the end of 2015 it was clear that word had got round. The government must have been aware there was a potential problem and announced it was shutting the scheme down - but hundreds more applications were made before the final closure.

Mrs Foster set up the scheme in 2012 when she was enterprise minister. She has faced many calls for her resignation but has ignored them all. Mr McGuinness says her position is “not credible or tenable” and it is hard to see any counter to that.

An election now is probably the last thing anyone wants to see in Northern Ireland. Already facing its own problems over the UK Brexit vote, an election at this time will almost certainly just misdirect and paralyse politics there. The two biggest parties will be Sinn Fein and the DUP and there will have to be more negotiations on the forming of another government, and Sinn Fein has already ruled out returning to the status quo.

If not for the greater good of politics and public office, then for the greater good of her country, Arlene Foster must go.

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