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Tuesday 28 March 2017

'It's time to call a halt to the DUP's arrogance' - Stormont in crisis as McGuinness quits over energy row

McGuinness called on Foster to stand aside in his signed resignation. Photo: Reuters
McGuinness called on Foster to stand aside in his signed resignation. Photo: Reuters

Power-sharing in Northern Ireland has been plunged into crisis after Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister in protest at the Democratic Unionist Party's handling of a botched renewable energy scheme.

The Sinn Fein veteran's move will lead to the collapse of the Stormont Executive and will force DUP First Minister Arlene Foster from office.

A snap Assembly election now looms.

Mr McGuinness announced his decision after Mrs Foster repeatedly refused to step down to facilitate a probe into the ill-fated Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) - a scheme that has left Stormont facing a £490m (€565m) overspend.

Mr McGuinness said he was resigning with "deep regret and reluctance" and added: "We in Sinn Fein will not tolerate the arrogance of Arlene Foster and the DUP. I believe today is the right time to call a halt to the DUP's arrogance."

Inevitable

The Sinn Fein veteran is experiencing health problems, but he insisted that had not influenced his decision.

"The First Minister has refused to stand aside, without prejudice, pending a preliminary report from an investigation," he said.

"That position is not credible or tenable."

He made clear that Sinn Fein would not replace him in the role. As a consequence, the collapse of the institutions and an election are now inevitable.

"We now need an election to allow the people to make their own judgment on these issues democratically, at the ballot box," he said.

Mrs Foster presided over the ill-fated RHI while economy minister. She has steadfastly refused to accede to Sinn Fein's demand for her to step aside to facilitate an inquiry.

The state-funded RHI was supposed to offer a proportion of the cost businesses had to pay to run eco-friendly boilers, but 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 so.

Claims of widespread abuse include a farmer allegedly set to pocket around £1m (€1.15m) in the next two decades for heating an empty shed.

Mr McGuinness's move came hours after Mrs Foster accused him of playing a political 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," she said."And if there is an election, there is an election."

While Sinn Fein had been due to formally call for Mrs Foster to step down in an Assembly debate next week, there had been speculation the party would pull the plug earlier.

"It is my firm view that the DUP's handling of this issue has been completely out of step with a public mood which is rightly outraged at the squandering of public money and the allegations of misconduct and corruption," Mr McGuinness said in his resignation.

Election

The structure of Stormont's Executive Office means a First Minister cannot hold the position without a co-equal Deputy First Minister. Mr McGuinness's resignation means Mrs Foster will no longer be First Minister.

The Foyle Assembly member said a decision on whether he would stand in the next election was an issue for "a later date".

Mr McGuinness said the DUP were living in a "fool's paradise" if they thought they could return to government with Sinn Fein after an election if the RHI issue was not resolved.

Ireland's Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan spoke by phone to Mr McGuinness and Britain's secretary for the North, James Brokenshire. He said: "It behoves all parties to act responsibly in word and deed, so the political institutions of the agreement will not be damaged in the longer term."

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