Colum Eastwood: NI Executive need to come to a collective response on RHI

Colum Eastwood writing exclusively for Slugger …

There is an old political truism that if a story involving a political scandal runs into the second week then resignations always follow. Survive one week and you might be ok – two weeks and you’re in deep, deep trouble. Arlene Foster is now facing into her second week of the biggest political scandal to hit Stormont since devolution. This story isn’t go away anytime soon, in fact it’s growing legs.

In the wake of the Spotlight programme I deliberately reserved my judgement on Arlene Foster’s continued position as First Minister. I wanted to afford her the opportunity to answer all the questions about this £400 million scandal. Up to that point she had only revealed she wasn’t getting into the ‘jot and tittle’ of this issue.

She has now selected to do two other media interviews on her own terms and yet has still failed to answer any of the real questions. Instead of honesty and humility the First Minister has served up distractions seeped in arrogance.

Into the second week of this scandal the questions keep mounting, the whistle-blowers keep emerging and the answers are still not forthcoming.

So what do we all really want to know? Let’s call a spade a spade.

We want to know why Arlene Foster designed the scheme differently from the one which was operating in Britain? We want to know if during the spike in applications in 2015 the word went out amongst people close to the DUP that they should pile on to the RHI gravy train? We want to know if Arlene Foster, Jonathan Bell and their special advisers knew if any of this was going on, and if not, then why not?

Into the second week we still don’t have any answers to these questions. Instead we’ve been treated to DUP spokespersons blaming civil servants, the media or the opposition. Anyone and everyone but those who took the decisions.

Last week the more measured tones of Simon Hamilton tried and failed to give reassurance that his boss had done everything she possibly could. This week that media policy changed. You know the DUP have really reverted to old school tactics when they wheel-out their favourite attack dog Gregory Campbell.

The DUP strategy is becoming clearer. Baton down the hatches, circle the wagons, threaten genuine opposition and genuine journalism and try to survive until Christmas.

This scandal is now a test of Sinn Féin. Are they happy enough to go keep holding the DUP’s hand on this one? Are they happy to let them away with this strategy?

Tomorrow the Executive is meeting for the first time since this scandal. It is their job to come to a collective response on this scandal. That means that the First Minister is compelled by her Executive colleagues to open herself, her special advisers and her party up to full transparency and accountability.

Instead of maintaining their sincere silence, it’s about time Sinn Féin caught up with the public mood and sought the same answers we are all waiting for. This cannot be another case like Charter NI where Sinn Féin say one thing on the funding of a UDA boss, the DUP say another, and then nothing is done. Public confidence simply cannot afford another week filled with an absence of answers.

If these answers from Arlene don’t come Sinn Féin will have another question to answer. Is there any tipping point in this scandal when they’ll abandon their policy of appeasement toward the DUP and stand with me in defending the public interest?

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